How 800 years of tradition is woven into Filipino culture

For centuries Filipinos have skilfully created items with deep meaning, as showcased in a Manila museum

A loom on display in the Artistry of Philippines Textiles exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology. Photo: Ronan O’Connell
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In downtown Manila, I admired colourful examples of an 800-year-old artistic tradition. Fabrics, jackets, skirts, coats, caps and dresses were displayed before me, showing off the delicate weaving skills of tribal artisans from all over the Philippines.

These woven products are a key attraction at the city’s impressive National Museum of Anthropology at the eastern end of Rizal Park, Manila’s green lung. This spacious neo-classical building — flanked by the National Museums of Fine Arts and of Natural History — does a fine job of explaining the unique traditions of the country’s dozens of ethnic groups.

Since the 1200s, Filipinos have woven clothes, blankets and mats from natural materials such as cotton, abaca and even pineapple fibres. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

In the Philippines, woven products are more than just garments, or objects. They comfort the living, shepherd the dead to the afterlife, offer a unique identity to communities and have been a source of pride for centuries. Tourists who venture into smaller Filipino cities and towns will see locals using traditional woven items such as ewes (blankets), wakis (belts), wanes (men’s loincloths) and lufid (women’s wrap skirts).

They can also learn about this rich artistic custom by exploring that aforementioned museum. This facility explains that, since the 1200s, Filipinos have woven clothes, blankets and mats from natural materials such as cotton, abaca and even pineapple fibres. There are distinct styles of weaving, and of woven products, produced by different tribes or groups across the nation.

At the museum I read that two types of loom have long dominated in the Philippines. The backstrap loom is king in mountainous areas, while the upright foot loom is popular in the lowlands. Tourists to the towns near Manila, or the stunning archipelago of Palawan renowned for its diving sites, may see local women operating an upright foot loom. These heavy wooden devices feature a system of pulleys and weights that can be adjusted depending on how tightly woven, or strong, the fabric is required to be.

A loom on show. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Visitors will come across backstrap looms in higher altitude tourist destinations, like the Unesco World Heritage Site of Banaue. Many travellers visit this remote location, 250km north of Manila, to absorb the natural splendour and ingenuity of its 2,000-year-old rice terraces. This region is famous for its backstrap looms, also known as body tension or horizontal looms, which are displayed at the museum.

These lighter, portable devices consist of two wooden bars, one that which can be attached to a sturdy object like a wall and the other held in place by a strap fixed to the back of its user. The threads are then stretched and woven between the two bars by the nimble hands of an artisan.

A vibrant yellow design. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

In the northern Philippines, backstrap looms are used to weave items such as ewes, wakis, wanes and lufid, as well as two styles of death shroud, known as fanchala and fiyaong. Filipino woven garments are important even after death. As explained by The Artistry of Philippines Textiles exhibition at the museum, many Filipino families dress a relative’s corpse while it is lying down or in a sitting position. Then they place a decorative shroud over the body, which is believed to help usher the deceased's spirit to a new realm.

The foot loom, meanwhile, is commonly used in the nation’s weaving hub, Aklan. This province in the central Philippines is a tourist magnet thanks to the country’s most famous attraction, Boracay. Decorated by pristine beaches and lined with upmarket resorts, Boracay is one of the best coastal destinations in Asia.

Aklan is also the home of pina, a soft, silk-like fabric woven from pineapple fibres which is widely called the “queen” of Filipino textiles. Pina created in Aklan is commonly used in national garments like the Barong Tagalog shirt for men, and the Terno butterfly-sleeved female dress.

These woven crafts are part of the Philippines intangible cultural heritage (ICH), something Unesco describes as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants”. As part of its effort to protect the country’s ICH, the Philippines government created the National Living Treasures Award. This prize is given to Filipino individuals or groups who possess rare skills that they pass on to new generations.

The story of Magdalena Gamayo. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Tourists to Manila can get to know these extraordinary people at the National Museum of Anthropology. The museum’s National Living Treasure Hall tells the stories of some of the Philippines’ most influential traditional artisans and musicians. I was particularly fascinated by the tale of Magdalena Gamayo.

In the small region of Pinili, in the far north-west of the Philippines, Gamayo at age 16 learnt to weave abel, a colourful Filipino fabric used for clothing, furnishing or decoration. Three years later her father gave her a loom and she used it to copy the patterns of an aunt. Gradually she became famous for her mastery of creating abel, a cotton cloth so robust it can last for generations.

Featured alongside Gamayo in that hall is Haja Amini Appi, the late expert of another famous woven product of the Philippines. Appi, who died in 2013 at the age of 88, was a master mat weaver of the Sama people from the deep south of the Philippines. The museum explains that the custom of crafting colourful mats is particularly important to communities in Tawi-Tawi, one of the most remote and least-visited provinces of the Philippines, about 1,000km south of Manila.

In Tawi-Tawi, mothers pass this skill down to daughters. The process begins with harvesting and de-thorning pandan leaves, which are torn into narrow strips, dried in the sun, compressed under a log, dyed into many colours, and then woven from a central strip outwards, as opposed to beginning with the mat’s edges and filling in the space.

While Sama mat weaving is an exclusively female pursuit, other Filipino woven products are male domains. Like the Tunkulu scarf, still used by some Filipino tribes. Tourists who venture into isolated areas of the Philippines will see such traditional woven garments everywhere they go. Otherwise they can admire these customs, and learn about their history, at Manila’s wonderful National Museum of Anthropology.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 6:02 PM