From Fibre to Fabric

Abaca cloth is a fabric woven by villagers in remote areas of the southern island Mindanao of the Philippines. The men of the village strip the fibres from the inside of wild banana trees. The women knot the individual threads together and tie dye them before weaving them into the fabric. The weaving happens on a backstrap handloom that extends about 8 metres from the ceiling to around the hips of the weaver. Once the natural threads are tightly woven into a beautiful piece of textile, seashells are used to polish and smooth the surface of the cloth. The whole process uses minimal amounts of water and electricity, making this arguably one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics in the world.

Our accessories line, White Champa Traderoutes, is proud to help keep alive an age old indigenous tradition. Especially, as the region of Mindanao where this product is made has long been ravaged by violent insurgency making the life of the craftsmen even more difficult.

Harvest and preparation

The first step in producing the abaca fabric is to gather the raw material in the stems of the abaca tree, a relative of the banana tree. The harvesting of the abaca requires physical brawn. With a sharp knife, the tree is cut diagonally at a few inches from the ground. One abaca tree yields roughly 2 meters of abaca fabric. The tree needs to be two to three years old and the diameter of its trunk needs to be about 14–18 inches. The abaca leaves are inserted between a block of wood held securely to a horizontal beam with a large knife pressing down on it. The abaca harvester pulls the stalk through the two, separating the pulp from the abaca fiber.

After stripping, the fibers have to be combed immediately so as to remove the sap that causes the darkening of the strands. It is hung from a house beam and combed with the fingers where the weaver selects and separates the fibers according to their thickness. During the selection of the fibers, the whiter and finer threads found in the inner stalks are separated from the coarser ones. The fibers are spread on a beam and left to dry inside the house.

After air-drying the newly harvested fibers until they are adequately supple, the fibers are grouped into wrist-size bundles. To soften the fibers, the women take the abaca strands and hand-rub them, using a motion like washing clothes, to make them pliant. Fine fibers are reserved for the warp or the lengthwise threads, and the thicker fibers are used for the weft or the crosswise threads.

Once dried, the women individually connect the fibers from end to end by tying tiny knots. The ends are cut with blade in order to make the connections invisible.

Among the T’boli of Mindanao, abaca was dyed in two traditional colors: black and red. The abaca fabric in red, black and neutral colors is called t’nalak.

In coloring the abaca strands, the T’boli women make use of natural dyes found in vegetation around their area. This process of resist-dye is commonly known as ikat, is a method that is shared with the neighboring countries of Indonesia and Thailand.

Hitem, or the black dye, is derived from leaves of the k’nalum tree. Once rice sack of leaves is gathered, pounded, placed into a large pot of water, and boiled. After two to four hours, when the full color from the leaves is extracted, the bed or tied fibers are placed inside. The cooking of the fibers takes an average of three weeks with the fire being refueled three times each day and the leaves and berries replaced every two days.

Once fully absorbed with the deepest black, the tied fibers are removed and rinsed in running water through a stream until the water runs clear. It is then air dried for about two days before the knots that have been tied, reserved for the red portions, are carefully removed. A weaver must be gentle in removing these knots.

Hulo, or the red dye, is taken from the roots and bark shavings of the small-leafed loko tree. Around one kilogram of the loko’s bark and roots are boiled in water for another half hour. The bed is then added and allowed to boil from five days to one week. Once finished, the bed is removed and rinsed thoroughly until the water runs clear and then air-dried.

Weaving

The T’boli backstrap loom or the legogong, is a form of horizontal two-bar or two-beamed loom where one bar is attached to the ceiling bamboo beam of the T’boli longhouse and the second beam, or the backstrap, is attached to the weaver’s lower back.

The longhouse is a structure specifically built for the production of the t’nalak. Because the length of the t’nalak can exceed over 10–meters, a horizontal structure is needed. In addition, the t’nalak must be woven in a cool area or the fibers will snap.

When the t’nalak weaver works, she weaves in the rhythm. After passing the shuttle through the threads, she pushed the threads to tighten using a flat piece of coconut wood made smooth and shiny with use. She does this three times in order to ensure that the weaves are tight and when help up against the light, the t’nalak blocks light from passing through. The weaving stage can take around 14 days to a month depending on the “character” of the fiber and the complexity of the design.

After the t’nalak has been fully woven, the fabric is thoroughly washed in a river so that the entire piece can be stretched following the river flow. Once it has been slightly air-dried, the t’nalak is then beaten repeatedly with a hard and round wooden stick in order to flatten the knots.

The final phase of producing the t’nalak involves burnishing the surface with a saki or cowrie shell, while the fabric is still moist. This shell is attached to one end of a bamboo stick with the other end attached to a hole in the ceiling of the longhouse to help apply additional pressure to the procedure. This task involves a strong body, as the shell is firmly rubbed repeatedly on the t’nalak in order to flatten it and produce an even coruscating gloss. When completed, the t’nalak is stored by rolling it and wrapping it with a separate cloth to protect it from damage.