Fabrics, social fabrics
I recently ran into a godchild whom I had not seen for some time, and when she told me she was graduating from UP Los Baños next year, I asked her what she wanted as a graduation gift.
Her reply: a “sablay” from Baguio, the sablay being the shoulder sash that UP uses instead of a toga and mortar board for graduation.
My godchild had been told there was a shortage of handwoven sablay, and indeed there is. The original woven ones were made by “hablon” weavers in Iloilo, but the demand has outstripped the supply, so Baguio is being tapped. But even Baguio has some problems with supply.
I don’t know if we should be looking at these developments as a sign of a growing appreciation for woven fabrics, at least in UP, or as a sad reflection of weaving as a disappearing art.
What a shame it would be if it is the latter.
The last two days, I have been listening to UP Professor Emeritus Norma Respicio at a workshop where she transported a captivated audience through the Philippines, introducing the intricate indigenous fabrics we have, their plant sources (including the dyes), the designs, the weaving methods. And all throughout the lecture was a historical backdrop that was sad yet hopeful.
Fabrics, Dr. Respicio reminded the audience, are not just pieces of cloth. They are really stories about the people who make and wear them. In modern society, we know that only too well, with the obsession for brands that have to be announced through their logos.
Traditional societies were just as status-conscious about fabrics. No logos with these traditional fabrics, but status was embedded in the very design of the fabric. What looked like a repeated “X” design on a piece of Bontoc fabric turned out to be a representation of a mortar, used to pound rice. Several of these X’s on a piece of cloth proclaimed the wealth of the owner of the fabric, in terms of having so much surplus rice production.
The English “fabricate” means to make, as with the French “fabrique.” It’s not surprising that we talk of the social fabric, to emphasize how societies need to be made. Like textiles, the social fabric needs to be strong and sturdy, because it goes through so much daily wear and tear. In difficult times, like the ones we live in, we fret about how that fabric might be torn apart.
The metaphor is powerful: When a nation’s social fabric
becomes tattered or, worse, is rent asunder, we are reduced to despondent street beggars.
Villages honor great weavers and, in recent years, the Philippine government has come up with a system to honor them as well, as we do National Artists. The weavers are gifted as individuals, but they are also powerful bearers of culture, remembering not just the mechanics of weaving but the craft as a whole — most importantly the rich symbolism that goes into the fabric’s designs.
That’s what we need, too, when we collectively weave our social fabric. We need social memory, as well as the ability to imagine what’s possible, as weavers do when they modify old designs or introduce entirely new ones.
October’s weekends have become special treats for my children because there are several events, all involving fabrics. Two weekends ago, it was “Habi” (the word for weaving in our languages) at Glorietta, an event that focused on woven products. Last weekend, it was FAME at the World Trade Center, actually a biannual event that features fabrics, food and home furnishings. And this week, from Thursday to Sunday, SM Megamall has a crafts fair exhibiting products from all over the country—yes, again including fabrics. I’ve seen these events grow, with more and more participants (many small- and medium-scale enterprises) and the improving quality of the product lines.
In the case of fabrics, it’s a race against time, since many of the weaving traditions are dying out. Dr. Respicio talked about the many assaults that caused the decline in our indigenous textiles sector throughout the Spanish and American colonial periods, on to World War II and, today, the entry of machine-made textiles and “fast fashion”—cheap but not very durable clothes.
Our neighboring countries, notably Indonesia, show that this need not be the case. Indonesia’s huge batik industry caters to all classes, with a wide (and wild) variety of traditional and modern designs, for formal and informal wear, and involving all kinds of fabrics. The demand for it permeates villages and cities, keeping the artisans going.
A revival of the art and science of textiles in the Philippines involves more than culture. It speaks of a sense of national pride, and of an enduring social fabric.
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