The serene town of Kiangan, the oldest town in Ifugao province, is home to Maria Galeon, a 79-year-old handweaver. She is one of the few who can impart the artistry and skill behind this traditional Ifugao handicraft to the next generations. With her silver hair combed neatly into place, her sprightly step is a direct contradiction to the wrinkles in her hands. Speaking to her reveals a gentle and dignified demeanor, with the soft tones of a person marked with the quiet humility of a life well lived.
Maria was an elementary public school teacher whose interest in weaving was piqued when she saw a student from the Ifugao Academy learning the art. “I took up weaving to make blankets for my family's use,” she relates, in finesse English, betraying her career as a teacher. “It was a hobby that I kept going back to when I had the time.”
Other factors also prevented Maria from devoting herself fulltime to the craft. Given its remoteness, thread is usually a scarcity in Kiangan. Maria either waits for available supplies or orders her requirements from Baguio. Preferably, she would use cotton yarn but neccessity prompts her to seek alternative sources. “We would purchase cloth sacks, unravel them, wind the thread into balls and weave them into blankets,” Maria reveals.
It takes her a week to weave a single blanket, following age-old techniques passed on within generations. It's a process that entails patience, dexterity, and attention to detail, with the preparations commanding almost the same amount of time as the weaving process itself. Cotton fiber is collected and twisted into strands which are then wound into balls to prevent uneccessary tangling. Colorants are procured, relying on the palette of Nature to color the textiles: mud from the river banks, bark cleaved from tree trunks, harvested legumes, and a medley of collected leaves. All these provide the red, black, yellow, and white hues of traditional Kiangan textiles.
Modernity injects a slew of other tinctures from ready made dyes but somehow, Maria gravitates towards the colors that she is accustomed to. “I'm used to seeing those colors on my fabrics,” she relates, “I know how to mix and match them well.”
Maria partners with another colleague to assist her with warping. Together, the two women carefully volley the balls of thread between each other, unwinding the skeins unto a loom. When the threads reach a sufficient width, Maria begins tying in her design, denominating certain patterns here and there as dictated by the positioning of her knots. Under her meticulous manipulations, she depicts traditional symbols of the Ifugao, pictographic renderings that contain a history of meaning: s-like shapes denoting the status of a headhunter, diamonds that represent ferns, and x's to portray fish. “All these symbols are important to my people,” she reveals. “We have been wearing them since the time of our forefathers.”
Once satisfied with the design, everything is taken down and submerged in a boiling vat filled with natural dyes and cooked until the desired color is achieved. “The fumes from the pot make it hard to breathe,” says Maria, “But, organic dyed ikat brings a better price in the market.” The threads are fished out of the vat, dried, and spread out. To the uninitiated eye, the newly colored strands hint of the emerging motiff. Maria's trained eye, however, allows her to accurately pinpoint if the dyeing process was successful.
If everything is in order, the strands are returned to the loom and the actual weaving process commences. Maria points out, a certain mindfulness is necessary during weaving. Each movement is intentional, a deliberate action towards a projected end. There is an intricate rhythm to the way a weaver's hand floats through the loom, orchestrating a delicate dance between the threads and the wooden implements that is mezmerizing to watch. In a room filled with other weavers, Maria quietly walks among her companions. There is a quiet camaraderie among the women as they diligently go about their work, pausing intermittently to check on their handiwork. The interaction between the weavers and the textiles they are crafting bring to mind the construction of modern engineering marvels. Each strand is integral to the sum of the whole, where the snap of a single thread dictates the downfall of the design. “Sometimes, I make a mistake and cut the wrong strand,” Maria laughs, “I have to hunt for the other end and retie the string. Otherwise, my pattern would be ruined.”
The finished products, glorious. A room full of Ifugao textiles, a sight to behold. It is easy to see how these magnificent pieces can find their own niche in today's global market. Mass production of the modern world heralded a longing for products that hark of authenticity and heritage. The demand for Ifugao textiles is gathering steam as the mainstream embraces what is native, where being indigenous adds a perception of prestige. Most consumers would hardly blink over paying a premium for products of this ilk, appreciating the handiwork behind the creations. However, there are others who would attempt to bargain for lower price points. Maria is quick to drive home a salient point. “Expensive? You try and make one, and I will buy it from you at a cheap price,” she laughs.
It brings Maria pride to know their traditional textiles have found its way into modern fashion. “I was wondering before: 'how beautiful is that skirt,'” as she points to a magnificent tapis on display at the Ifugao Heritage School. Paired with a crisp white blouse and a structured coordinating blazer, it is an outfit that can easily be used on the streets of a bustling metropolis. Maria was delighted to learn it was one of her designs. “I feel so happy; it's so beautiful!” Yet, this fulfillment in her craft is darkened by a recent discovery. It pains Maria to know that the Ga’mong, the funeral blanket used by the Ifugao to cloak the corpse of their deceased, was repurposed for high fashion. “It is unseemly,” she exclaims, “I wish they would ask about the significance of our textiles before using them. It is disrespectful, to say the least.”
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Considering the fine craftmanship that Maria and the other women pour into their weaving, a modicum of respect seems like a paltry sum to pay. Factor in the magnitude of its cultural and historical background and deference to their craft suddenly becomes all the more imperative. The issue, therefore, lies beyond the patronization of these products. Rather, it is found in the intention: is the purchase of the Ifugao's traditional weave a homage to the history behind the fabric or is it a mockery of the culture through the exploitation for couture and material gain?
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The question of whether it is a tribute or an insult is at the core of finding synergy between tradition and modernity. There is a fine line that demarcates these two polarities, a conundrum that begs to be further contemplated and examined through close communication with the weaving communities that tirelessly churn out these pieces of art. After all, each textile is a tangible piece of the story of the Ifugao, a repository of tales we wish to impart on future generations.
Support Maria and other indigenous weaving communities at the 7th Likhang Habi Market Fair on October 20-22 2017 at the Glorietta Activity Center. For more details, visit their Facebook page.
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Photographs by the author