Passions and Obsessions

Know, maximize our textile edge—
the natural fibers from all over

‘I learned of a cloth—no longer woven—made of abaca,
gossamer and strong like spider web’

Laptop pillow (All photos from Buensalido & Associates)

HABI president Adelaida Lim (left) and HABI founder Maribel Ongpin: ‘What inspires us to carry on are the weavers…’ (Photo from HABI official website)

Are today’s Filipinos aware of our rich textile tradition that embraces the piña from Panay, hablon from Iloilo, inaul and t’nalak from all over Mindanao, inabel from Ilocos and La Union, Cordillera weaves from the Northern Luzon highlands, Mangyan weaving from Mindoro and abaca weaving from Bicol?

Slowly, the awareness and patronage of them have risen, enough for Maribel G. Ongpin of HABI: Philippine Textile Council to crow, “We are not aiming for mass market but for a prosperous niche in it. Our textile edge is natural fibers which the world appreciates more than ever, as against synthetic, the craftsmanship and beauty that these fibers put together in a woven material.  The idea of handmade is appreciated more than ever in this age of robots and machines.”

She got involved with HABI while president of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, a non-government organization that helps the National Museum, in the late ’90s to 2009.

But before this, she gave credit to Mrs. Amelita Ramos, the former First Lady, for her vision on indigenous fabrics. Mrs. Ramos founded a textile society with Patis Tesoro and Dave Baradas.  It did not last, but it served as inspiration.

While at the Museum Foundation, Ongpin recalled that the Indonesian textile society delegation came to Manila in 2008 looking for their equivalent. There was none.  They were looking to have the Second ASEAN Traditional Textile Symposium held in Manila.

Not finding a textile society, they were directed to the Museum Foundation. Ongpin said, “We managed to successfully host the symposium at the National Museum in 2009.  By that time, my term as president of Museum Foundation had ended.  My friend Adelaida “Laida” Lim and I, who had worked for the symposium and met all the ASEAN textile societies (from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Malaysia, Vietnam), thought that it was necessary for the Philippines, with its long, varied tradition of indigenous fabrics, to have one.  So Laida and I founded HABI.”

‘I am challenged to devise means to revive the production of this cloth called nipis

Lim, who now serves as council president, said of their role, “It is important to preserve and promote our weaving techniques and textiles because these things tell me who I am.  Not just that.  HABI has been a continuing voyage of discovery. Yesterday, I learned of a cloth—no longer woven—made of abaca that is gossamer and strong like a spider web. It was found extant up to the latter part of the last century among the Panay Bukidnon in the highlands of Panay Island. It may have preceded piña cloth. I am challenged to devise means to revive the production of this cloth called nipis.”

Ongpin said they both “felt that the mission/vision of HABI would be the preservation, development and modernization of our varied, unique and colorful fabrics.  Since it was a tradition and a rural economy craft, we felt that weavers, who are mostly women, though some men are and very good at it, would be empowered with extra income. But above all, we felt we had to respect and reinforce our identity by keeping and stimulating the weaving craft of Filipinos.”

She continued, “Our fabrics are not mass-produced as they are natural because they are hand-made.  There is a uniform law that mandates government employees must wear uniforms made of indigenous fabrics.  The reality is that it cannot be implemented unless we have massive blending of the fibers (piña seda, piña cotton, piña abaca or abaca cotton, etc.) that would have to be mass produced.  The Philippine Textile Research Institute is looking into this.”

This also explains why local indigenous fabrics are not for everyday wear.  However, Ongpin said, “more and more Filipinos of all classes are wearing them for special occasions, from graduations, to weddings, baptisms, foreign interaction.  The consciousness of the beauty and Filipino identity of this fabrics has been raised to a more popular level rather than through fashion designers doing society events though that, too, helps. HABI deserves a bit of credit for this new level of consciousness to buy local.”

But Lim insists on wearing local every day. She said about her conscious decision: “I make it a point to wear only natural fibers. My rule of thumb for all my clothes is it should be comfortable enough to sleep in and presentable enough to wear to a reception.  In our environment—a bio-diverse archipelago—natural fibers will set us on the path towards a circular and sustainable economy. My favorite article of clothing is the cotton patadyong grown and woven in Patnongon, Antique.  This versatile cloth can be so many things from a skirt to a cradle.  It manifests all over Southeast Asia as the sarong, lungyi.”

Ongpin and Lim have been to all the ASEAN Traditional Textile Symposia wearing these fabrics, giving them as gifts and selling them. Ongpin averred, “I am not too much of a social person, meaning, I am not too much into gatherings where one has to be well-dressed.  But if I have to be, I wear piña, inabel, inaul, hablon.”

Asked about the importance of buying local products, particularly indigenous fabrics, she said this “helps the rural economy, boosts women’s empowerment, raises standards of living and brings on education.  We have seen these effects in practical terms in our weaving communities: better houses, educating children at college level, self-confidence, wearing jewelry, good clothes.  All of these elements will help them negotiate with middlemen or direct buyers and prevent exploitation.”

As for cotton, HABI buys “every cotton crop that farmers offer us and pledge to buy it in the future,” Ongpin said. “We pay world market prices or slightly above. Cotton was our traditional weaving material. It gets better prices for woven products.  Weavers are convinced about that through our demonstrating to them that they get better return for their weaving skills.  We have partnered with the Philippine Fiber Development Agency and Ayala Foundation in planting cotton. We have convinced private parties to do so on idle land.”

The Department of Agriculture through Philfida has also been supportive.  HABI sits in the subcommittee on fibers of the DA.  HABI considers the DA an ideal government agency to work with.

Ongpin said, “We give credit to the Philippine Textile Research Institute for research on natural dyes, on blending different fibers and on spinning cotton into thread.”

Another HABI supporter is Rep. Loren Legarda who has from the beginning “listened to our suggestions, publicized our cause and done her own work along the same lines,” Ongpin said.

Public response to HABI’s fabric fairs has been so heartwarming over the years.  It started with 12 vendors 10 years ago, then to 25, to 30, 50 and 60 plus.

Likhang HABI Kalayaan Online Fair runs until June 20 

Ongpin said, “More than the attention and sales as benefits so we can do our work of mission/vision is the self-confidence that the weavers and vendors begin to have, the recognition that their work is valuable and in demand.  We see how they go levels up in their products with the competition, new ideas, exposure.”

She concluded, “What inspires us to carry on are the weavers and vendors who show their enthusiasm, appreciation, ideas, self-confidence and the wonderful results on their families, their rural areas, also the keeping alive of tradition and the reinforcement of Filipino identity.”

Apart from these fairs, HABI has published three books on weaving: HABI, A Journey Through Philippine Textiles, edited by Rene Guatlo; Rara: Art and Tradition of Mat Weaving in the Philippines by Elmer Nocheseda; and Weaving Ways: Filipino Style and Techniques by Dr. Norma Respicio and Gayle Zialcita.

HABI has given talks and demonstrations in the various ASEAN Traditional Textiles Symposia.  It has done a video on Visayan weaving for the School of Oriental and Asian Studies of the University of London.

Meanwhile, it has an ongoing event called Likhang HABI Kalayaan Online Fair. It runs until June 20 at, HABI’s virtual mall.

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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