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The Way of the Weave

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Charisse Aquino Tugade goes with ANTHILL Fabric Gallery to see their work—and the lives they touched—in one of their partner communities in Abra.

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Photography by
Fruhlein Econar
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Anya Lim doesn’t stop, not even for a minute. She had to travel to another community in Vigan in the afternoon, take a bus to Manila in the evening, and set up for an early morning event the next day—even after having flown in from Cebu the day before. I come to find that this is typical of her.

As the founder of ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, a social enterprise focused on Philippine weaves, Anya works with a weaving community located in Barangay Bulbulala, La Paz, in the highlands of Bangued, Abra, where we had our first meeting. We chatted about how we follow each other on Instagram. After fifteen minutes, she looked for the driver to bring us to Mang Abel Ti Abra, the co-op she’s collaborated with for the last six years.

“Cool, you were able to rent a car,” I said.

“Nope, that’s the weaver’s car.”

“Your weaver has a Montero?”

“Yup,” she smiled as she walked towards the vehicle.

An ANHILL weaver laying out thread to be woven
Spindles of dark blue threads


Having worked with indigenous communities for roughly ten years, I know the rigors of this type of work all too well. Monthly meetings in far-flung places, daily phone calls and answering texts asking for money is the norm. When you work with marginalized communities, you invest more than your time; you invest your energy. Sometimes you are the business manager, planning for production and finances. Sometimes the guidance counselor, listening and giving advice regarding marital issues. There’s a lot of love and patience involved. Many of my communities do quite well, but a Montero? Anya must be doing something right.

“Nanalo tayo ng award.” With a newspaper in hand, Anya sits around a group of handloom weavers. There are about 20 ladies huddled around, buzzing with excitement. The news article talks about an award that ANTHILL recently received from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Efficiency and Success Target (BEST) Awards. The word tayo is repeated as Anya speaks, and it is the key word here. It’s a powerful one; she uses this over and over to describe the achievements by ANTHILL, denoting collective ownership.

Anya and her team at ANTHILL transform these textiles into the wearable pieces we see today.

ANTHILL is an acronym for Alternative Nest and Trading/Training Hub for Indigenous/Ingenious Little Livelihood seekers. It’s cute and deep at the same time. “Similar to an anthill, we envisioned the brand to be a place where a communal spirit is celebrated among different artisans, designers, weavers coming together to work for a common goal to elevate the value of our weaves. We want to emulate the values of ants such as hard work, unity, and resourcefulness.”

Anya gave birth to this Cebu-based social enterprise with her mother Annie in 2007; they focused on Asian textiles, a strategic move to pull in the customers and create traction before moving to purely Filipino weaves. ANTHILL preserves and promotes weaving traditions by applying them to contemporary design for everyday wear. The outcome is nothing short of enviable—Anya and her mom help preserve dyeing traditions, provide sustainable livelihood to otherwise marginalized communities, and make our traditional weaves cool.

Run by an amiable matriarch named Natividad Quiday—or Aling Naty—this particular group of weavers is what Anya refers to as her Direct Partner Community, one of the three communities she works with. With deeper engagement, the company implements what they call a Community Enterprise Development Program (CEDP), with modules that focus on cultural appreciation, product design and innovation, business skills transfer, master and apprentice module, and financial literacy.

ANTHILL weavers sit behind upright floor looms

THE NEED FOR INTERVENTION

At the turn of the 20th century, 6,000 upright looms were documented in the country. Today, there are less than a thousand, and a weaving community would be lucky to have even twenty. With a population of over 100 million, this is rather pathetic, to say the least: We have 25 documented areas of textile production from the north to the south, using both the basic back-strap loom and the more sophisticated upright floor loom, but what was once a vibrant industry has now dwindled to less than a fraction of what it used to be.

Due to lopsided trade policies, cheap imports, a shift to other cash crops and placing a premium on foreign goods, our weaving culture and textile craft has almost been abandoned. If these practices are not abated, it would simply disappear. But there is a movement: A movement of like-minded individuals who continue to work, not just to preserve, but revitalize our weaving practices and woven textile industry. This isn’t just about your lola’s terno anymore.


Rebecca Pantil, Naty Quiday, and Rosemalyn Figares wear the weaves of their community
a towel woven from upcycled threads‍

Top: Rebecca Pantil, Naty Quiday, and Rosemalyn Figares wear the weaves of their community, Bottom right: a towel woven from upcycled threads

To keep traditions alive, many of these groups intermingle modern design with an homage to the traditional. This is why Anya is always on the go, looking for new communities, creating sustainable programs for weavers, and keeping the weaves updated. There are women like Patis Tesoro, who almost single-handedly revolutionized our piña weaving traditions. There are legislators like Loren Legarda, who pushed for the Tropical Fabric Law that prescribes the use of Philippine fabrics for official uniforms. The National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) is doing its part by establishing the School of Living Traditions, which are non-formal schools that partner traditional bearers with students to learn their indigenous art forms. The Philippine Textile Research Institute provides research and testing for new types of neo-Filipino yarns and natural dyes for the public to use. Habi, the Philippine Textile Council was formed a few years ago by a concerned group of individuals whose aim is to promote Philippine textiles.

There are also social entrepreneurs who’ve sustainably leveraged indigenous knowledge to benefit both the craftsman and the wider audience. These young social enterprises—such as ABEK, Yakang Yaka, Habi Shoes, Ancestral Craft, as well as my own, The Manila Collectible Co.—have provided a venue for elevating traditional craft and heritage. Non-profits like Non-Timber Forest Products and CulturAid have provided both funding and training not only for weaving communities but for other communities that bear our little known traditional knowledge systems.

And, most importantly, there are culture bearers like Aling Naty, whose lifelong goal is to continue nourishing the weave and encouraging younger weavers to pursue this age-old craft.

THE SISTERHOOD OF THE LOOM

Inside a small room in Aling Naty’s house is a copious amount of thread. On one side, mountains of yellows, pinks, greens, and blues are stuffed in plastic bags waiting for their turn to be used. On the opposite side, a wooden contraption with pegs sticking out is used to warp. We settle in while a group of weavers gather under a mango tree. This is where the magic happens; where creativity and thread collide and the warp is set.

For several years, Aling Naty was the only one who had the expertise to warp. It requires a breadth of knowledge; a grasp of design that is handed down from master to apprentice. It also requires counting: you must know the next three steps, because if you mess up, you have screwed the next eighty yards of textile for the next weaver. Aling Naty started in the ’90s; she now has 46 weavers under her, and two who can warp. But they can only warp a few designs; the knowledge of the more difficult whirlwind and whirlpool of patterns lie within the brain of Aling Naty. God bless her. The specific textile design lies in her hands, which have perfected the Ilocano designs, such as kantarines, and the binakol patterns.

Because the women are together everyday except Sunday when it’s half-day, they’ve developed a sisterhood of sorts.

Something draws you to Aling Naty—she’s like a mother that you can confide in; someone who would take care of you no matter what. You can feel this. She is indeed a businesswoman, but it’s her heart that comes through. She is the big boss around La Paz, but everyone calls her Auntie. There’s a kindness and love for her weaver sisters that emanates. Her type of management has brought her good karma; she also runs a rice mill, a hauling company and a piggery.

“We saw so much leadership potential in Aling Naty,” Anya describes their first meeting. “We shared the same values and vision for our handloom weaving industry; she had a very genuine desire to help her village and grow the handloom business. We worked with them because she expressed challenges in the community in finding a stable source of income. She also expressed how they have very limited markets for their weaves and would sometimes have to compromise their prices to a middleman.”

A sisterhood has grown from the daily ritual of these weavers. Together with ANTHILL, Aling Naty has provided a family-style support system, gathering together a group of like-minded women. As they weave together day in and day out, their lives become interwoven—like the warp and weft of the fibers they work with each day.


Textile in progress made through an upright loom


CULTURE IN ACTION

Although it’s comforting to think that cultural transmission is the primary reason for teaching, the monetary incentive motivates most master weavers to take a new weaver under their wing. Anya had developed a master and apprentice program to help increase the number of weavers through an incentivized plan. “If it’s an ANTHILL purchase, we augment their income by 20 percent. Ten percent goes to them directly on the condition that they teach a younger weaver, [the other] 10 is part of their savings program.” As a result of this agreement, community membership has increased.

Gerina Pantil is one of these new members: At 26 years old, she has three young children and lives below the poverty line. She’s been weaving for less than a year. If she doesn’t weave, she’d be unable to augment her husband’s income as a farmer, or provide clothes and school supplies for her three children. If she weaves 80 yards, she receives Php 1,300 from Aling Naty. She can weave up to eight yards in a day, which means about Php 3,900 each month. That’s about the same wage of a domestic helper in Manila, without having to leave family. And she is proud of her home, where, amidst the tranquility of nature, life is good. You’ll find a few goats, ducks, dogs and cats milling around. Her children happily play with the farm animals, contented with the joys that come with provincial farm life.

The women cross a bamboo bridge in Brgy. Bulbulala, La Paz, to visit the home of a fellow weaver
The women cross a bamboo bridge in Brgy. Bulbulala, La Paz, to visit the home of a fellow weaver

Aling Naty and her sisterhood of weavers use 22 upright floor looms to weave Anya’s requirements, which is staggering compared to her orders five years ago. What was once a tiny cottage industry has bloomed into something much larger than what Aling Naty had envisioned when she first started her enterprise 20 years ago.

And the effects of these tiny changes are tremendous: Thanks to Anya’s investment in the community, business is so good that ANTHILL orders upwards of 400 yards per month—compared to the original ten yards per month that Anya could order on her first year. More yardage ordered equals more manpower needed, and with weaving being so lucrative, more young women are gaining interest in a craft traditionally thought to be something reserved for the lolas.

This is culture in action. It’s not contrived, not for show; it is simply the way they live.


A DAILY RITUAL

The daily life of a weaver in this barangay is quite relaxed; it has to be. When cooking, a stressed cook spoils the pot. The same goes for the art of weaving. There needs to be a certain amount of Zen, a calmness within the individual before the process begins. If one is rushed, counts are off and threads break. Weaving is a tedious, mechanical, and repetitive craft; it calls for a certain type of personality, one that can find comfort in keeping still over the sort who must constantly be on the move. With Abra weaves, the process begins with winding the thread, warping, setting the loom, and then the weaving proper.

Most of the women are up by 5 A.M., ready to weave at the Mang Abel Ti Abra headquarters (also Aling Naty’s home). Some weavers feel that they are able to do more work here. “Just like in an office,” as Anya says. At 7 o’clock, the women leave to tend to their families’ breakfast and take their children to school, after which they resume weaving, producing as much yardage as possible before lunch, during which they undergo the same ritual as breakfast. And then they weave once again, until the workday ends roughly between 3 to 4 P.M.

Many of the homes have what appear to be antique looms. Passed down from generation to generation, they say that these types of looms are made from the good wood. “Hindi inaanay, walang bukbuk.” After work, some weavers continue to weave in the comfort of their own home, surrounded by their children and family.

A weaver works on a textile


This is culture in action. It’s not contrived, not for show; it is simply the way they live. Most of the older women in Bulbulala were exposed to weaving as young children. Their grandmothers and mothers were part of a generation that still wove for their daily wear. “Nung bata ako, nakita ko lola ko, naghahabi siya kahit matanda siya,” one weaver says. “Hindi niya ako tinuruan, pero nakita ko lang ang gawa niya at parang natuto na rin ako na ganun yung pag habi.”

As the women grew older, this tradition was pushed to the sidelines as they began to support their families and find other venues of work. Weaving was thought of as lowly; it wasn’t valued as much as working abroad or being employed as a domestic helper in Manila. Anya and her mother provide informal training on cultural appreciation, something they hope will change the way these women perceive their own weaving traditions and culture.

At 69 years old, Manang Dolores has been weaving for more than 50 years; her sister Manang Segunda had just begun weaving at the age of 62. Although she knew how to weave, Segunda spent most of her life working as a domestic helper. Having just recently retired, weaving was a means of occupying time. When we met her, she was using a homemade spindle from a bike tire to wind the threads.

Weaving is their life and they’ve succeeded in passing the culture to their grandchildren, who now do the basic weaves. The women are happiest here, at the weaving center of Aling Naty. They are first to arrive every morning—even before the roosters crow.

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This story was originally published in GRID Issue 15.

Women from the community wearing their textiles

This story was originally published in

Issue 15 | Lands of Plenty

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