Championing local textiles the right way means a lot to our indigenous communities

Published January 25, 2021, 7:36 PM

by John Legaspi

ICYDK, January is Philippine Tropical Fabrics Month

In the time when cultural appropriation is among the many issues being called out in the world, it is pretty inspiring to see that the Philippines is hitting the nail on the head in bringing the country’s vibrant weaving culture to the center stage. 

Even during a time of the pandemic and destructive natural calamities, Filipino fashion continues to give back and uplift lives. These days, the concept of bayanihan isn’t just about giving a helping hand like transporting a stilt house from point A to B, it’s now become a way to lift other people up—in this case, through what we wear.

Today, fashion entrepreneurs give the country’s weaving heritage the spotlight it deserves by providing avenues to make the long thread of the Filipino craft a sustainable source of livelihood while providing a sense of pride and true patriotism to its wearer. As we celebrate Philippine Tropical Fabrics Month this January, it is great to see that Philippine-made fashion is more than a trend. It is here and we’re all championing it. 

Threading lives

In the ’70s, the Philippines ranked sixth among the top exporters of garments to the United States based on a report made by the UN Comtrade. But the country’s textile industry started to dwindle in the beginning of the 20th century with neighboring countries such as China, India, and Myanmar leading the textile race around the globe. And with the rise of fast fashion, the country’s stand on the agenda became much closer to a blur.

Thanks to modern marvels of weaving heritage, local textiles are now seeing new light and form, sharing stories of Philippine tribes to the next generation.

“We are making a stand in opposition to fast fashion,” says Jeanie Javelosa, the chief visionary officer of the Gender Responsive Economic Action for the Transformation of Women, or simply called GREAT Women. Promoting slow heritage fashion, GREAT Woman sought for a niche in the market that will be solely Filipino through what they call “Philippine fusion.” 

Jeanie Javelosa (Photo from GREAT Women)

This simply means using materials that are uniquely manufactured in the country—piña-jusi (pineapple organza), abaca fibers, etc.—and combining them with cotton, playing with different colors to produce beautiful, culture-imbued fabrics that could be easily put into production.

“We need to be sustainable. These textiles provide another dimension when turned into clothes. Its durability lasts years—you know who wove it, you know where it grew. That’s what you get with these textiles,” Javelosa says. “They are truly empowered when they are part of an inclusive business. They learn business ethics, they become knowledgeable of the quality that comes with every purchase.”

Filipinos, most especially the women, benefit from the country’s textile culture in many ways, far beyond just making means for living or dressing up. A research conducted by the British Council, titled Crafting Futures: Sustaining handloom weaving in the Philippines, reveals that weaving is still able to significantly empower weavers as women, artists, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.

Having a means to earn an income improves the roles of women in their household and tribe in general. These women were able to leave abusive marriages by being able to return the dowry paid in tribal nuptials. Filipinas are seen as cultural bearers and designers in their own rights. Many of them expressed that the income from weaving will never be able to match the prestige of being recognized as an artist.

Photo by Bagane Fiola from the British Council

Respecting the ancient craft

While wearing these products made from indigenous textiles can make one feel nationalistic, it is still important to seek knowledge about the stories, values, and disciplines woven into the textiles. These artisanal fabrics are rooted from rituals and traditions and must be used ethically and with proper respect. Here are some ways everyone can do to avoid mistranslation of the wearable crafts: 

Know the context

In today’s modern technology, information regarding indigenous textile and how to wear them appropriately can be acquired with a push of a button. Educating oneself is part of the process in wearing these artisanal works with pride. Books such as Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave by Marian Pastor-Roces and Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave by Norma A. Respicio can give one a proper introduction on the weaving heritage of the country.

Give proper credits

Stories of the past are threaded in the discipline of weaving. Ethnic tribes have different interpretations, rituals, and processes in creating their local fabrics. And each textile requires long hours of labor to produce. So apart from studying it, it is also appropriate to give them the recognition they deserve when using the fabrics. 

Go for collaborations

The best ways to elevate the Philippine weave textiles and the people behind it is to establish a good working partnership with them. Organizations such as the GREAT Women and the Habi: Philippine Textile Council can help entrepreneurs and designers in building bridges with the ethnic communities. These are trusted producers that are dedicated to uplifting weaving tribes and promoting responsible use of the textiles. This way, consents are given by the tribes and they are compensated for their work.