August 25, 2009

Vanishing Weavers of the Philippines

I was watching a documentary on KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) World about the ramie makers in Korea, they showed how they harvested the fiber right from the plant and all the way to garment making.  Towered the end of the short docu they showed how Korea was using the ramie in different and more modern styles to keep the fiber industry thriving.  While I was watching this my mind kept wandering to the traditional clothes of my heritage.

The silky texture it seemed to have, and the sheer quality of the fabric reminded me of the Barong Tagalog, Kimona, Maria Clara, and Baro’t Saya fabrics of the Philippines.  I grew up with my mother telling me those fabrics are unique to the Philippines, hand woven with abacá  (banana) and piña (pineapple) fiber, sometimes making jusi blends with silk, ramie (who knew?), cotton or synthetics.

bananaI watched that KBS docu and remembered all of this when one of the clothing designers took out some knitting needles (what!!?!) and another one whipped out a hook (omg!!!), and a light bulb blinded my brain.  At the time I didn’t realize ramie was quite a common thing among the fiber community, a.k.a. the crack known as Ravelry.  So I figured I’d search for something on the yarn database and I found some piña/ramie blends, which made me covet.

But I was curious to see whether I could get just straight piña somewhere here in the U.S. or if they had a textile area in Manila or something (which I’m still curious about).  I started doing some Google-fu to see what info I could find and I got a little distracted.  Piña weaving is dying in the Philippines, in fact it’s come to the brink of extinction several times in history.  There are less and less people with the knowledge, and even fewer young who have a desire to learn.

The Philippines, like any other country, is struggling for the life of their traditional artisans and the crafts that define their heritage.Pineapple-fiber-extraction  The young see it as either a deadweight that keeps them from the modern and the shiny, something old and meaningless, or as an art that simply isn’t lucrative enough to put dinner on the table.  Worse then any of those, some see a dying craft, and they just don’t care.

I can understand the other three excuses, I can even empathize, but apathy is inexcusable.  Its not that everyone should get up in arms over traditional weavers, just that you should care.  Its part of the heritage, your heritage is part of your identity, and that heritage is dying a slow death.  It’s not just a piece of cloth, its a tangible connection to your ancestors and your history, and it should be preserved as such.

It scares me to think that the closest thing future children will get to hand woven piña will be in a history museum.  Clothes feel different when you know they’re made by hand, there's pride in that, for both the wearer and the maker.  You’re proud of your traditional clothes because its that outward expression of your peoples history, would you rather that expression be made by a machine, or the very people you share that history with?


As someone who knits, crochets, and sews I can understand that stubbornness to do it the old way, that desire to do something that someone way back in history did because there's a connection in that process of making something by hand.  It’s not just a tradition for traditions sake, its a definition of what it means to be you, and its a result of who you are and what you love.

I know there’s a resurgence in the popularity of Barong Tagalogs in the Philippines, which is a good thing, for the culture and the weavers.  Honestly finding all this out has made me even more curious about weaving, and especially weaving having to do with my cultural heritage, both Filipino and Mexican.  Are there guilds for artisans in the Philippines?  Is there any kind of cultural heritage foundation to assist and preserve the traditional crafts?  What can I do to help?  Right now I have absolutely no idea.

What I do know though is that I really, really, really want that dress :O and I am currently taking donations, so be a good neighbor.

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