Kalibo Aklan – Ilo Ilo Cotton Advocacy Excursion 2017

I SPENT the past few days on Panay island—Aklan, Antique and Iloilo— visiting weaving communities of the Western Visayas.

As a member of HABI: The Philippine Textile Council, I join the visits to weaving communities to see the state of indigenous weaving and fabrics.

Our first stop was the Fiber Festival in Kalibo that takes place every third week of April. Now on its 17th year, the festival has gone from strength to strength with piña and abaca. Piña can be combined with silk or cotton to enhance its beauty and strength. The festival participants show their best and their newest products because the festival rules require new products every year, and give sales targets. With the beautiful piña fabric with its woven-in designs (suksuk), targets are not missed. Moreover, with the ongoing trend for natural and organic, natural dyes are now the rule. Indigo, yellow ginger and even cogon are sources o natural dyes. In fact, part of our visit was witnessing India Legaspi, owner and designer of a well-known Kalibo atelier, and a Japanese team conduct an indigo dyeing workshop, as well as utilizing the wild banana core to make fabric.

Government agencies like the Aklan local government, Department of Trade and Industry and the Philippine Fiber Industry Authority have done and continue to do good work in Aklan which has resulted in more weavers learning and earning from the craft of piña-weaving. Much improvement is seen by the visitor compared to some years ago with a decent international airport busy ferrying tourists to Kalibo directly from their home countries. There are many new hotels, restaurants, shops—a lively commerce going on. Boracay takes in much of the piña products but international buyers are active as well.

At one atelier we saw men and women weaving on a Sunday. There were easily more than a dozen active looms. Orders had to be delivered. The owner of the atelier was having her house renovated and expanded. So, the piña industry is doing well.

In Antique, we visited a far-flung weaving community, Bugasong, about three hours from Iloilo City where we arrived by land from Kalibo. In Bugasong, a unique “hablon” (the Ilonggo term for woven material) is their “patadyong,”a tubular garment that can be worn a number of ways like the Mindanao “malong.” The place is known for its checkered or square designs, usually in bright color combinations (though there can be sophisticated beige and brown shades too). A patadyong usually measures two meters and can be worn for many occasions like bathing in the river (not common anymore), house wear or even as celebratory clothes. It is the weave and its colors that are unique. In Bugasong, the patadyong material is even more unique because it features embroidered motifs like flowers (sampaguita) or crosses or stars. We visited the weavers’ cooperative there and met many weavers, saw quite a number of looms (there were some modern ones from the Department of Trade and Industry). The cooperative does not lack for orders and the current Palarong Pambansa going on in San Jose, the capital, had sourced their souvenirs from them. What HABI is campaigning for is the use of cotton thread rather than synthetic yarn so that their woven stuff can meet the market demand for natural fiber, which is cotton, and with that commands a higher price. Bugasong is an out-of-the-way rural community on a farm-to-market road (very good) but the colors and designs that the weavers there come up with are very sophisticated and felicitous. It was a joy to meet the women who were confident and empowered (some men are also in the cooperative) and open to new ideas for better marketability. Again, government agencies were cited as being most helpful and encouraging. They too were hit by Yolanda and many international agencies helped them recover. There was a poster that said the UN, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and CARE had lent a hand after Yolanda.

Meanwhile, Iloilo, both the province and the city, are the traditional and long established weaving centers. In centuries past they had thousands of looms and produced an enormous amount of handwoven cloth. However, the local weaving industry experienced a steep decline when cheaper an imported material from the mechanized mills of Europe came into the country, exchanged for the sugar that Iloilo produced in quantity. But many homes still have their traditional looms and weaving has never disappeared. There was a brief resurgence after World War II but it was offset, again, by cheap imports. But today with the new consciousness and appreciation for native fabrics made with natural fibers, there is renewed interest and the weaving industry is picking up. It has a niche in a lucrative market. Fashion designers are paying attention and homage and using the fabrics in their designs. The traditional methods are still viable—weaving jusi from silk threads sourced from Negros Occidental and the traditional hablon. Here HABI and government agencies are encouraging the use of cotton thread to get better prices. In Miag-ao, outside Iloilo, they are again growing cotton. Oton, the neighboring town has its own weavers, and is considering the planting of cotton too. It has had a cotton spinning workshop which HABI sponsored two years ago.

In Miag-ao, the weavers’ cooperative was already sold on cotton when we came. They had just participated in a textile fair in Thailand and had sold all their cotton woven material and not any of their products woven from synthetic thread. The market has convinced them.

Some traditional weaving ateliers complain that few young people want to learn how to weave and try to make a livelihood from weaving. While the city’s bright lights can be alluring and put looms in the shade, if weaving pays well as it can with the new markets, the loom will be a good fallback after the bright lights dim. Our Oton connection who has a weaving enterprise has a lot of new weavers who are young, mostly young mothers or single mothers in need of an income. They are quick learners, are motivated enough and on the road to empowerment. Others like the nine-year-old daughter of an Aklan weaver learn quickly and then as a hobby or pastime, weave in their own looms when not in school.

There are problems, of course. Political rivalry in small towns can be deadly for the weavers not on the right side of the ruling dynasty. And yes, there are dynasties, which explains the polemics. Other problems are mismanagement of government resources given to help the weaving industry. A sericulture project that was generously funded failed because the land was between several local governments and they could not get their act together. Then there are the older generation of atelier owners who still have a feudal mindset. They expect weavers to come to them, do not offer attractive wages and therefore, cannot get their work done. And there is the pity, because they are gifted designers, have meticulous standards and can produce marvels. They have to learn to compete for weavers but they do not see why and therefore are marginalized.

Another annoyance for the weavers is when government agencies (like the Department of Tourism) order all kinds of souvenirs for immediate delivery to be given to Apec or Asean delegates that the Philippines has been hosting lately, and then take their time in paying for them. That is one lament I heard often on this trip.

In sum, it was an exhilarating journey through the Western Visayas. The roads were generally good, if not outstanding, except for the odd bridge still being leisurely built and not ready. The schools were in top physical condition—painted, neat, with flowering gardens. The town plazas were still uncluttered by concrete buildings, had more grass and larger dimensions than what we see in Luzon. All provincial capitols that we saw looked stately and attractive. The provincial capitol in Kalibo dazzled with its white paint and blue glass. The countryside was busy harvesting bamboo and the vast rice fields of Aklan were ready for harvest. On roadside stands were mango, avocado, bananas, pineapple and melons. Iloilo City is booming. And everywhere a good meal could be found with fresh and natural ingredients. There is a great summer season over there.

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