The collectible secrets of Sulu’s happy island

Published November 22, 2020, 9:05 PM

by Manila Bulletin

The hidden paradise Laminusa, off the northern limits of Celebes Sea, is home to an almost forgotten craft collectors are crazy about

By Zea Capistrano
Images by Acmad Macarimbang

There’s an island in Sulu where the colors of the mats they weave seem to live up to the meaning of the place’s name—a happy island.

Laminusa island is about four hours by boat from Jolo, says Acmad Macarimbang, proprietor of Baluy Laminusa.

“Laminusa is derived from the Indonesian word lami, which means happy, and nusa, which means island,” Macarimbang tells the Manila Bulletin.

FROM TREE TO MAT 65-year-old master weaver of Tabanas design Anangdian Pawai gathering pandan leaves to make Laminusa mats

He describes the island as “surrounded by pristine white beach. It’s a hidden paradise.” He visited the island in February 2017, “some minutes away from the Celebes Sea,” he says.

Most houses in Laminusa hang colorful sleeping mats, locally known as baluy, by their windows.

Laminusa women weavers

Laminusa weavers are mostly elderly and women. Macarimbang says only a few weavers remain on the island. Among them are four skilled weavers for each mat design.

PRIME WEAVER 60-year-old Ingkiya Perikai is a master weaver of the Cotabato design of Laminusa mats

They are Valentina Indanan for Magsaysay design, Ingkiya Perikai for Cotabato design, and Sahaya Ulud and Anangdian Pawai for Tabanas design.

Macarimbang says the country’s national mat weaving artist in 1990 named Maluy Lasa Sambulani (deceased) was from the island of Laminusa. He adds that their enterprise wishes to impart to everyone that the women in Laminusa were skilled mat weavers and “this time, their almost-forgotten artistry is reintroduced.”

Macarimbang, who previously worked with a non-government organization that promotes social enterprise in the country, set up Baluy Laminusa in the same year of his visit to the Sama Laminusa community.

Along with his wife Zeny and an uncle, Macarimbang spoke with some weavers of the Sama Laminusa community to start the project, hoping to showcase their mat designs and to support the “dying tradition of mat weaving in the island.”

Mat designs

Laminusa mats have three distinct designs: Magsaysay, Cotabato, and Tabanas. Each is a product of the weaver’s “creative imagination.”

Magsaysay or magsai-sai, according to Macarimbang, is a local word for waves, themselves an attraction along the island’s coasts.

TEXTILE ATTRIBUTE The Tabanas design shows detailed small square-patterns

“Others say that the original name was Sekoh or zigzag,” he adds. But many also believe that the design is so named because a Laminusa mat of this design was given to former President Ramon Magsaysay as a present.

The Kinutabato, now Cotabato design, resembles the Cotabato malong, which is famous on the island. The Tabanas design, on the other hand, shows detailed square patterns.

A long, long process

The intricate designs of Laminusa mats is a product of patience, hard work, and the weaver’s perseverance. The mat is made of pandan leaves, which are naturally abundant on the island.

To produce a mat, the fresh leaves are left to bleach under the sun before they are soaked in boiled water for about 12 hours.

UNPARALLELED CRAFTSMANSHIP 61-year-old Valentina Indanan weaves intricate Magsaysay
patterns of Laminusa mats

Macarimbang explains that by the time the leaves have dried and softened, the weavers can begin dyeing them in a variety of colors. The preparation of the material for the weaving normally takes a couple of weeks. A small mat, according to Macarimbang, takes two weeks to finish while bigger sizes takes anywhere between one and three months.

“After the weaving, another undyed plain mat is woven, which is used to line the rear of the mat. The liner is handstitched to ensure durability,” he says. 

Collectors’ item

Macarimbang points out that buyers of their mats are mostly collectors. “Many have known Laminusa mats from years back as part of their beautiful memories, and also the new buyers are a supporter of quality local products and people who love beautiful things,” he says 

Currently, there are 10 weavers who are learning and working with the four women weavers of Baluy Laminusa. The four women ensure that standards are kept.

‘The effort, time, skills, and devotion of every weaver to making this piece of art alive from generation to generation must be highly priced.’

MAT HISTORY According to Baluy Laminusa proprietor Acmad Macarimbang, many believe Magsaysay got its name after the banig was given to former President Ramon Magsaysay as a present

Together the weavers produce 50 pieces of mats on average over a course of two months.

A weaver earns between ₱700 and ₱4,000 for each mat, depending on its size. “Additionally, we give back ₱25 to ₱120 for each mat sold,” Macarimbang says.

Challenges during the pandemic

When the pandemic hit, the production of the mats stopped as shipment via local couriers allowed only essential goods.

By the time the weavers resumed their production, the shipping costs had increased. The Laminusa mats are transported from the island via Jolo to those who order.

The small number of weavers who can do a certain design is also a challenge.

Macarimbang laments that “only one or two persons” can do a selected design. “Another challenge may be a cultural belief on the island that when someone (gets) sick within the household, weaving is disallowed until that person recovers from illness,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Baluy Laminusa has been able to continue producing beautiful mats and the community of weavers on the island is starting to grow.

GENIUS ARTIST 60-year-old Sahaya Ulud is one of the two weavers who have mastered the skill of making the Tabanas design

The weavers are reaching out to other women in the community, “mostly from their family members,” who previously had no interest in learning the skill of weaving, according to Macarimbang. “The weaving industry is primarily not for profiteering, but a space in which to reintroduce one’s self who is proud of one’s artistry as a mirrored image of one’s community’s vibrant tradition,” he says. “The effort, time, skills, and devotion of every weaver to making this piece of art alive from generation to generation must be highly priced.”

Truly, each mat is not only a thing of beauty, bursting with colors. It is also a product of creativity and weaving skills honed for generations by the weavers on Laminusa island.