Looking Back

History and design in Death Blankets

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At the recent Filipino-American Book fair in San Francisco there were many stalls in the street between the Asian Art Museum and the SFO Public Library that carried more than books. There were stalls with:  patriotic t-shirts, caps with baybayin, Kapampangan food, Virgin coconut oil, Pinoy films on DVD (original not pirated), curios, and other tempting knick-knacks to clutter the expatriate Filipino home.

In one stall I saw a display of hand-woven cloth from Northern Luzon, the type common in the “Dry Goods” section of markets in Baguio and Ilocos. These are basically white with indigo blue design and highlights in red that provide color and drama in lowland Christian or urban homes. Quite popular with interior decorators or self-taught Martha Stewarts, these blankets are employed as accent pieces in rooms to reflect a sense of Philippine culture. Removed from their original ritual purpose these Ifugao woven textiles end up as: wall hangings, bed covers, table cloth etc. Chosen for their quaint “primitive” or “folk” designs decorators don’t realize that the stylized human figures, snakes and lizards are essential elements in a “death blanket” or something used to wrap a corpse! Next time you are tempted to spice up your home with an “ethnic” textile do a bit of research to ascertain its original ritual purpose.

Preserved in the National Museum is the Banton Burial Cloth, actually a remnant of a blanket said to be the oldest existing cloth in the Philippines. It was found in a wood coffin in Banton, Romblon associated with Ming period blue and white ceramics. The Banton cloth is a piece of ikat-dyed abaca made sometime in the 13-14th centuries and is supposed to be one of the oldest known warp ikat textiles in Southeast Asia.  Of course, there were other pieces of cloth older than that found in Banton but these have not survived to our time, or at least they are just waiting to be found in some pre-Spanish grave.

Cloth weaving in the Philippines is an ancient art going a long way back to the time when our ancestors got tired of the leaves and tree bark that covered their genitals. The long complicated process of weaving cloth is best summarized by Alice Guillermo who wrote:

“Traditionally, the entire process of weaving cloth, for daily use or for ritual, has been the work of women. The production of a piece of cloth entails a number of stages. It begins with the cultivation of the plant ‘such as cotton, abaca, and pineapple’ the fibers of which will be used for weaving. The fibers are extracted from the leaves of these plants and prepared by carding, twisting, spinning, and winding by means of a spindle into thread. Warp threads are carefully counted and measured before they are attached to the beam of the loom and weft threads are evenly wound into bobbins. Also part of the preliminaries is the gathering and preparing of natural dyes. After the threads are soaked in dye and dried in the sun, weaving on a loom can begin.

Weaving may follow decorative dyeing techniques, decorative weaving techniques, or supplementary thread techniques.”

There are as many different textiles in the Philippines as we have:  islands, languages and cultures. From Northern Luzon to Muslim Mindanao traditional cloth is still available today but for me the most decorative are blankets made by the Itneg of Abra. My personal favorites are the dinapat with stylized human figures and the famous binakael (meaning “spherical”) that resemble modern Op-Art that confounds the senses. I am drawn to the binakael sometimes referred to by dealers as “kosikos” (whirlwind) because it is an old design that predates the work of the 1970’s European abstract artist Vasarely.

Unfortunately, some products of Itneg looms are mistaken for Ilocano work. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this ethnic community is known both as Itneg and Tinguian. The terms are used  interchangeably, but the Itneg see themselves as Itneg and leave the  difference in branding to outsiders, who divide the group into Itneg  (from iti uneg, meaning [those who live in] “the interior” or  highlands) and Tinguans, who live closer and associate more with the  lowland Christians of Ilocos and Abra. Tinguian are considered more acculturated or “modern Itneg.”

Woven textile of red, white, blue, and black—sometimes even yellow? form flowers, stars, horses (with or without riders), fish,  snakes, etc. While old pieces can still be found in private  collections today these are slowly disappearing from Itneg communities  leaving us with modern copies or worse old design incorporated into  Ilocano blankets and mass-produced using machines, synthetic thread  and commercial dye thus underpricing the traditional blankets with  natural dye hand-woven by Itneg.

Though not much has been written on textiles, there is a group of enthusiasts like Maribel Ongpin, Petty Benitez-Johannot, and Rene Guatlo formed Habi, a foundation that studies and promotes Philippine textiles in relation to textiles in Southeast Asia, so these can be preserved. They also work towards preserving traditional weaving techniques. Aside from exhibits and bazaars we hope Habi can publish a primer on Philippine textiles to shed light on a neglected area of Philippine cultural history.

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  • Anonymous

    It’s amazing to read such details. I’m glad too that ethnic weaving was not altogether wiped out by the influx of cheap cotton during American occupation of the Philippine Islands. Or was there a connection?

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