Islands of Embellishment: Transforming Traditions in Philippine Textiles

By B. Lynne Milgram, Ph.D., 2003


Textiles and clothing reveal stories of identity, economics and social change. This exhibition highlights how artisans and designers in the three island regions of the Philippines use woven plant or bast fibre textiles to refashion historical precedents in cloth making into contemporary visual statements.

In Ifugao Province (northern Luzon), Aklan Province and Panay Island (central Philippines), and the Davao Gulf Provinces in southern Mindanao, artisans lacked easy access to fibres such as cotton, silk and wool. Instead, they looked to local plant sources to fulfill their need for clothing and textiles to use in the household, for trade and in celebratory and religious occasions. These local bast fibres include piña (pineapple) used in Aklan, abaca (banana) used in south central Mindanao, and mulberry bark used in Ifugao. Through ongoing use of such fibres, artisans developed skills and specialized knowledge about the practice of these unique textile traditions.

With the advent of national and global market forces, Philippine artisans and designers are now building on traditional textile production to enter the global economy on their own terms. They formulate new aesthetic standards that, while remaining rooted in fabrics and styles that speak of their regional origins, also incorporate non-Philippine elements of design to proclaim broader appeal and availability.

Artisans borrow colours and patterns, and map them onto historically coded models to develop textiles that provide national Philippine fabrics for a post-modern era. Bast fibre weaving is still done primarily by women, both within the household and in small workshops. Engagement in these innovative practices enables female artisans to access new economic opportunities while enhancing their culturally embedded association with making cloth.

The inclusion of piña and abaca cloth garments belonging to members of the Philippine-Canadian community illustrates the different methods by which individuals use distinctive Filipino fabrics to display human experience and to develop new hybrid identities as Philippine-Canadians.

Islands of Embellishment juxtaposes historical and contemporary Philippine bast fibre textiles and highlights their multifaceted nature.

Bark cloth, Ifugao Province (northern Luzon)

In the early 20th century, before the introduction of cotton to the upland regions of the northern Philippines, all cloth was constructed from bast fibres extracted from the trunk of the local sopot tree - a species of fast growing mulberry planted purposely for making cloth. Bahki, the most common bast fibre, is brown in colour. The coarse texture of bahki means extensive labour is required to soften it through boiling and beating. The other available bast fibres, both brown and white in colour, are equally coarse but not as widely grown. Women carry out each stage of extracting and processing the bast fibres and weaving the cloth. Because the entire procedure is labour intensive, women must intersperse cloth production with their other responsibilities such as child care, farming and domestic tasks.

In the past, the limited range of clothing made from such bast fibres included men's loincloths (wanoh) and shirts, women's skirts (tapis) and blouses, and blankets (baya'ong). During the first half of the 20th century, bast fibre garments were worn at ceremonies marking rites of passage, village festivals, agrarian rites, as visual markers of ethnic identity, and for everyday use such as clothing.

Currently, only a small number of weavers in the Banaue (Ifugao Province) villages of Cambulo and Pula continue to produce bark fibre textiles. These artisans, however, have recently targeted their production to the global market by identifying the table runner format (30 cm x 300 cm) as the most applicable textile for commercial sale. After weaving these cloths on backstrap looms, women sell them to craft shop owners who resell the fabrics as yardage, or, they sew them into different functional products such as bags, backpacks and place mats.

Banaue weavers are also experimenting with different arrangements of the warp-stripe format, the main patterning of these cloths, and with different colours they obtain from local natural plant dyes. Through these innovations, weavers continue to represent part of their culture in the goods they make while reconfiguring traditional technology and design to address the international craft market.

Piña textiles, Aklan Province and Panay Island (central Philippines)

Piña, a diaphanous cloth woven from the fibres of the leaves of the pineapple plant, is a distinctive textile synonymous with the Aklan and Iloilo provinces. Piña cloth items provided gifts (comparable to fine European needlework) for royalty in Asia and Europe, and commanded generous sums in the trade of the 1800s. Piña is a lowland production in which weaving is done by women using upright looms, often in small workshop settings, and thus different from the household-based backstrap production of weavers in the highlands of Ifugao and south central Mindanao. Piña cloth is not related to ritual; it is a marker of prestige and wealth associated with the urban elite.

The pineapple is generally considered a New World plant, brought to the Philippines in the late 16th century by Spanish colonizers who stocked it as food. When the pineapple (especially the wild variety known as Red Spanish) grew successfully in early Panay Island settlements, artisans already skilled in weaving fabrics from local plants utilized it as an additional resource. Men usually extract the fibres from the Piña leaves while women process the fibres for weaving. The finest fibres are termed liniuan while the coarser ones are known as bastos.

Piña production reached its peak in the late 18th to early 19th centuries when fine piña weaving and embroidery rivalled the intricate laces in vogue in Europe. To promote piña production locally and for export, the Spanish utilized local skills and established institutions (religious schools) in which European nuns taught Western embroidery styles to young upper class Philippine women and orphans alike. Thus, piña weaving and embroidery developed as parallel industries. Villages in Laguna Province, south of Manila, became centres for embroidering piña cloth woven in the Visayas, and expertise in needlework became a prized skill of women. The main items tailored from piña include women's blouses (baro), worn with a detachable shawl collar (pañuelo), skirts (saya), men's shirts (barong Tagalog), and handkerchiefs.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the piña industry had entered a sharp period of decline. Its labour-intensive production could not compete with the imports of cheaper European factory cloth. In addition, as western dress was increasingly adopted during the American colonial period (1868-1946), people's desire for modernity meant a loss of interest in traditional Philippine fashion. (See also Montinola, 1991).

In 1985, the Patones De Casa Manila, a group of concerned Philippine manufacturers, designers and government agencies, successfully revived the piña industry. Maria “Patis” Tesoro, a prominent member of the group and leading Philippine fashion designer, played a major role in this revival. Working closely with manufacturers to develop innovative patterns and designs, Tesoro successfully cast piña cloth within a national fashion discourse. She also established the Katutubong Filipino Foundation, an organization that promotes indigenous Philippine arts such as piña weaving, embroidery and natural dyeing through sustainable livelihood projects. Aklan manufacturers such as Heritage Arts and Crafts revolutionized the piña industry in 1995 by using silk yarn as the warp to develop what is today termed, piña -seda (pineapple-silk) cloth. This innovation increased the availability of piña textiles as piña-seda is easier to weave and less costly to produce. At the same time, the Dela Cruz House of piña, another established family operation, focuses on perfecting production of their renowned piña liniuan cloth and applying it to new products such as shawls and scarves.

Embroidered piña cloth has emerged as a multidimensional textile whose life history continues to evolve in the 21st century.

Abaca Fibre Textiles, Davao Gulf Provinces (south central Mindanao)

The provinces of south central Mindanao (bordering the Davao Gulf) are home to a myriad of different cultural groups. The ethnological record of this area, however, provides information that allows for the cultural patterns of these groups to be generalized as a whole with regard to shared technologies, systems of belief, economics and material culture. Some of these groups include the Bagobo, B'laan, T'boli and Mandaya, whose woven and intricately embellished abaca fibre textiles (trousers, jackets and yardage) are featured in this exhibition.

Throughout the region, the source of fibre used in weaving is abaca, or a semi-wild variety of the banana tree (Musa textilis). Like Ifugao's mulberry bark, the process of extracting the fibre from the trunk of the plant and preparing it for weaving is labour intensive. The use of abaca in conjunction with warp ikat (tied and dyed) patterning and embroidery embellishment is widely considered a unique feature of cloth production from south central Mindanao. Occasionally, some weavers use commercial cotton thread, but, overall, abaca remains the fibre of choice among the region's weaving communities who practice the ikat technique.

Although ethnographers have proposed systems of meanings for the complex network of designs on abaca ikat cloths - human figures, animals, whorls and rhombs - weavers talk more often of numbers than of named motifs. The numbers refer to the number of abaca thread bundles counted and tied by a weaver in the process of creating a design. Thus, the skill required to bring together a complex set of motifs into a cohesive and appropriately coloured composition, still identifies an accomplished weaver and is an indicator of a woman's social and economic position.

Contemporary weavers, however, are open to new methods and materials. But what persists in the face of innovation is conservatism in the motifs used, as illustrated in the similarity of the pattern structure in both older and newer abaca textiles. Today, when specific new garments are required for special social occasions, embellishment with embroidery and beads (like the woven patterning) follows the design parameters of particular groups, thus marking ethnic identity. This paradox of conservatism and adaptability is a constantly negotiated process where rules established by tradition clash with the pragmatism of modern daily needs. (See Quizon, 1998:103-131).

Garments from the Philippine-Canadian Community in Ontario

Members of the Philippine-Canadian community loaned piña and finely woven abaca garments from their personal wardrobes for display in this exhibition. These people maintain that these fashions reveal their identity as Philippine-Canadians as well as their continuing association with their homeland. For some, wearing such traditionally styled clothing physically connects them to the town, city or province of their birth - whether it be the man's embroidered barong Tagalog (shirt) or the woman's distinctively tailored and embroidered baro't saya (blouse and skirt). Indeed, a sense of place continues to be a significant marker of personal identity.

For others, these garments provide a means to represent their Philippine culture in Canada and to join this association with their emerging Canadian identity. Still others explain that such clothing is a tribute to the high calibre of work by artists and designers in the Philippines, and by purchasing and wearing these garments, they are showing pride and actively supporting the continuance of these art, design and fashion forms.


Bast fibre textiles produced in the three island regions of the Philippines simultaneously highlight diverse regional traditions as well as Philippine nationhood. By reconfiguring materials, techniques and styles, artisans and designers effectively use these unique cloths to respond to shifting market forces and forge links with contemporary global fashion. Philippine bast textiles indeed materialize how global facts take local form.


  1. Casal, Father Gabriel et al. 1981. The People and Art of the Philippines. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA.
  2. Gomez, Dom Martin de Jesus H., OSB. 2001. Worship and Weave: Towards Filipino Liturgical Vestments. Manila, PH: Ayala Foundation, Inc. and Monastery of the Transfiguration.
  3. Montinola, Lourdes R. 1991. Piña. Manila, PH: Amon Foundation.
  4. Quizon, Cherubim A. 1998. Men, Women, War, and Peace: Perspectives on Contemporary Bagobo and B'laan Textiles in From the Rainbow's Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines. Edited by Roy W. Hamilton, pp.103-131. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.


I sincerely thank the lenders to the exhibition and especially those individuals who offered ongoing advice and consultation during this process. I also extend my appreciation to the Philippine Consulate General, Toronto. To the staff at the Textile Museum of Canada, and to exhibition designer Kai Chan, I give many thanks.

Lenders to the Exhibition:

  • Mrs. Legaya Caña, Ontario
  • Dela Cruz House of Piña (Maria Rhodora Dela Cruz-Sulañgi), Aklan, Philippines
  • Dr. Maria Antonina de Villa, Ontario
  • Dr. Guillermo O. de Villa, Jr., Ontario
  • Heritage Arts and Crafts (India dela Cruz and Javier V. Legaspi), Aklan, Philippines
  • Mrs. Rosalinda Javier, Ontario
  • Eli Baum Lagdameo, Maryland, USA
  • Ms. Erlie Gomez Manaloto, Pampanga, Philippines
  • Dr. Esperanza Mangaliman, Ontario
  • Monastery of the Transfiguration (Dom Martin de Jesus H. Gomez, OSB)
  • Bukidnon, Philippines
  • Salahis Arts and Artifacts (Robert F. Lane), Manila, Philippines
  • Maria Beatriz "Patis" Tesoro, Manila, Philippines
  • Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., USA
  • Textile Museum of Canada, Ontario
  • Mrs. Ores Ting, Ontario
  • University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, British Columbia

B. Lynne Milgram is an anthropologist and professor in the Faculty of Liberal Studies, Ontario College of Art and Design, Adjunct Graduate Faculty (Anthropology), York University, and Adjunct Curator for Asian Textiles at the Textile Museum of Canada. Her research on gender and development in the Philippines analyzes the cultural politics of social change with regard to fair trade, women's work in crafts and agriculture and micro-finance initiatives.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada