Photos by NEAL P. CORPUS
Seven hours away from Cubao, nestled in the mountains of Ifugao, is the small town of Kiangan. It has one bank, no 7-Elevens, and no electricity at night. Or so I thought. It still only has one bank and no 7-Elevens, but when we arrived via sleeper bus at 5 a.m., it was pitch black and no sign of anyone around. It’s almost too obvious to say, but I was convinced it was the beginning of my horror movie. As it turns out, the lights were out for the day because of power line repairs in the region. Once the power was back on, I quickly discovered that this tiny town in the mountains is not as antiquated as I — blissfully ignorant, as most Manila born-and-bred folk go — initially thought.
I was up there for three days not to lounge around and enjoy the mountain air and whatever else tourists do in Sagada (which is three hours farther), but to learn about Kiangan’s weaving community. Historically, the town is known as the birthplace of Ikat, the weaving technique that involves tie-dyeing yarns to create designs on a woven textile. There are no grand attractions. There is only one recommended place an outsider can stay (the former mayor’s house that’s been turned into a homestay), and I was told that to come to Kiangan, you’d have to be invited.
The trip was organized by Habi: The Philippine Textile Council, which works with the weaving community by supplying their yarns (made of Philippine cotton) and giving them a venue to reach out to consumers through the Likhang Habi Fair held annually in Manila. Habi introduced us to Marlon Martin, the founder of the Ifugao Heritage School and a great resource of Ifugao weaving traditions and culture in general.
Over the course of three days, Marlon schooled us on the weaving process from start to finish, and the rituals that go with them. Did you know that there are 23 gods of weaving, one for each step of the weaving process? One who splits the cotton from the seed, one who fluffs the cotton, one who dyes the cotton, one who spins the yarns, one who weaves, one who assists the weaver — the list goes on and on. Most of the symbols you see on the textiles represent gods, too; for example, the bayawak is a common symbol that represents a god that came down to earth in the form of a bayawak to teach people how to find water to irrigate their farms.
To educate people about growing cotton in the Philippines, Habi makes a cotton seedling kit that you can plant at home.
Learning about these symbols is important, as we discovered, because they are a big part of what these textiles can be used for. Case in point: a skirt that they wove for Vice President Leni Robredo in December 2018 became a point of contention as it was said by some to bear the design of a death blanket, when in fact it contained symbols of lizards, which represent life.
We also learned a lot about what it actually means to be a weaver these days. The weavers in Kiangan are paid as fairly as possible, which is higher than other regions in the country. This also means that weavers from different parts of the province and the country have streamed into Kiangan because of these rates, so now the goal is to get more customers to buy their textiles.
This is where Habi comes in. The nonprofit organization’s goal is to bring Ifugao textiles into modern products that are more marketable, while still keeping their tradition and identity. They also supply the yarns that the community uses to weave, spun from Philippine cotton that they grow in Zamboanga del Sur and Iloilo. Habi works with the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA) on these farms, which allows the weavers to purchase the cotton at fair (and cheaper!) prices.
Traditional textiles were originally made with cotton, but became diluted with stiffer polyester fibers because it was cheaper. Much of Habi’s efforts are focused on reinvigorating the cotton industry for these weavers; Habi tells me that they are in the cotton business only because no one else is. Eventually, they want to get out of the business when there are enough farmers and suppliers to support the textile industry.