Strip, split, knot, design, tie, dye, weave, pound, iron. Each of these steps goes into the weaving of the exquisitely complex T’nalak, a resist-dyed (ikat) abaca fiber, which is backstrap woven by T’boli women in the southern Philippines.
The Weavers of the T’nalak
The T’boli tribe is a culturally rich, indigenous community with a unique language and traditions. T’nalak weaving is a way of life for most of the T’boli women, handed down from one generation to the next. This artisanry has given them economic freedom and a way to contribute financially to their families.
The T’boli women are known for their sense of beauty which is highly reflected in their weaving of the T’nalak, known as “woven dreams,” the gifts of Fu Dalu, the spirit of abaca. To this day, clans arrange marriages to ensure that top weavers become part of their family. T’nalak of the highest quality has been exchanged for horses, water buffalos, and highly-prized gongs. The weaving and use of this cloth are accompanied by various taboos, such as never to use it on the floor.
The Making Process
The T’nalak is made from the abaca (Musa textilis) fiber plant, native to the Philippines. The outer layer of the plant is stripped and scraped, freeing the fiber strands which are then sun dried, and knotted.
Weaving this resist-dyed ikat cloth on a backstrap loom can take a month or longer, beginning with the weaver’s “dreaming” of the design of the fabric. The patterns are hand tied into dazzlingly complex interpretations of nature and daily life, such as butterflies, eagles, and pythons. Next, the abaca is colored with natural dyes derived from soil, leaves, grass, fruits, barks and other sources gathered from the forest. After weaving, the cloth is hand pounded with hard wood to soften it, and ironed with cowrie shells to highlight its natural sheen. Each piece of T’nalak is a personal journey, a testament to the creative artistry of the weaver.
T’nalak commercialization had become widely popular in Lake Sebu as the local government has put up initiatives to boost local tourism and commerce. For the T’boli women, this has been advantageous as it has helped them to provide a stable source of income. It has also helped to elevate the social status of the women and restore the gender balance, as this activity breaks the stereotypical roles by allowing them to pursue economic opportunities. Indirectly, this has also brought them leverage in terms of influence and decision-making in the society.
Thanks to CustomMade Crafts Center of the Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Program Philippines for the images and information for this blog. CMCC promotes indigenous artistry and advocates fair trade and sustainable practices. Their main goal is to generate income that will meet the daily requirement of forest-dependent artisans, enough that will allow them to meet the expenses brought about by modern life such as sending their children to school, while still having the freedom to carry out their traditional way of life: a life tied to the land and customs.