Magical Weaves

Textiles of the Mindanao and Sulu People

  • October 7, 2019

  • Written by Reuben Ramas Cañete, PHD

  • Photographed by Greg Mayo

In every society, clothing indicates a human being’s relationship with the community, defines their belief, and celebrates design artistry that speaks of their identity as a distinct group or individual. This is especially so in pre-industrial societies, where one’s material value and social status are defined primarily by clothing. Before the period of colonization and modernization, the peoples of Mindanao and the Sulu/Tawi-Tawi archipelagoes were fierce defenders of their territorial identity. They were also demanding clients of traditional and imported weaving symbolizing their uniqueness, qualities that can be argued as “tracers” of cultural continuity. 

An ensemble of intricately woven and dyed textiles, starting with: (bottom) a Yakan pis (large kerchief) with the intricate kabangbuddi pattern of tiny cross, x’s, and triangles; (middle) a B’laan/Bagobo dyed textile, either called tabi or panapisan, used as wraparound skirts; and a B’laan sapi, also a wraparound skirt.
The B’laan and Bagobo textiles focus on deeper reds, maroons, dark browns and blacks for their color tone, as well as large expanses of tie-dyed patterns named after the number of threads used in the “belt” of the cloth.

Collected by American ethnographers since the turn of the century, many of these significant examples of clothing can now be found in foreign museums. Fortunately, former Senator Nikki Coseteng has championed traditional weaving as a source of cultural pride among Filipinas and compiled an extensive collection of indigenous textiles from different areas of the country, rare examples of the high art that traditional weaving has achieved. In addition, Coseteng published a scholarly coffee table book in 1991, Sinaunang Habi, written by Marian Pastor Roces to discuss the importance of the dying tradition of Filipino weaving. 

Brightly colored beads forming x’s, diamonds and triangles mark this brass-buckled belt of the Bagobo/B’laan. Its feminine usage is indicated by the brass hawk bells dangling in beaded tassels that allow it to jangle musically upon walking around.
The intricately tie-dyed abaca skirt called a tabi (B’laan) or panapisan (Bagobo) revels in its incredible detailing of mocha-sepia figures set against maroon and black, achieved by painstakingly counting and tying lengths of thread with beeswax wraps and dyeing them in different colors.

We can divide the traditional peoples of Mindanao and Sulu into two main groups: the polytheistic lumad peoples of northeastern, central and southwestern Mindanao, such as the Bagobo, B’laan, Mandaya, Mansaka, Talaandig, and Kalagan-Tagakaolo; and the Islamized Moro peoples of the northwestern/western side of Mindanao island and the Sulu/Tawi-Tawi archipelagoes, such as the Maranaw, Maguindanaw, Ilanun, Subanon, Yakan, Tausug, and Sama-Badjao. The motifs of these two main groups can be differentiated between highly stylized human and animal figures for the lumads; and abstracted geometric shapes with curvilinear patterns among the Moros. 

A quattro of gaily-colored textiles from Moro Mindanao, starting with (bottom two) Yakan saputangan over-skirts, followed by (top two) Tausug pis siyabit (headscarf) or hos siyabit (kerchief). The general use of abstracted forms is notable, with Yakan focusing on crosses, and Tausug on eight-petalled flowers and diamonds.
A pink, purple, and blue Yakan saputangan weave textile, with its subtly-burnished patterns of diamonds and triangles set amongst crosses and curlicues.

There are also two main techniques for producing designs in these fabrics, shared by both groups: the so-called bë-bëd or ikat method of reserve dyeing; and the panayan or ansif method of embroidery and bead stitching. Notwithstanding the technique of decoration, all the peoples of Mindanao (indeed, all non-Christianized Filipinos) rely on a common form of assembling the warps and wefts through the back-strap loom, a system of threads suspended on a set of wooden sticks, braced to the wearer’s back, and tied to a post—usually in the raised house’s silong. Traditional weaving was, therefore, a supremely women’s art, relying on their capacities for hard work, encoding knowledge, relaying tradition, and even reciting dreams into coherent and mathematically excellent weaving design. 

There is sublime simplicity in this Tausug luhul open stitchwork fabric (reminiscent of a fishnet) with gold metallic thread embroidery, set in the most austere of diamond-and-chevron versus cross geometry.
The gay attire of an albong takmun worn by B’laan/Bagobo women as blouses. The use of extravagant embroidery, rendered into bead-like patterns alternating in geometric floral patterns, and a large band of alternating zigzag patterns at the abdomen area is typical of these people’s weaving.

The color sensibility is the first thing that hits you between the two general traditions of Moro and lumad. The former is more riotous, with gaudy contrasts of red, yellow, black, green, purple, and white. The latter attached to a narrower range, from scarlets to maroons, bleached whites, browns, blacks, and more recently, blues. There is also a more pronounced abstract geometry among the Moros, primarily via diamonds, chevrons, crosses, triangles, and their distinct okir curves; whereas the lumad exhibits a wide range of anthropomorphic human figures and animal motifs, primarily the crocodile (buwaya) or monitor lizard. Perhaps the most spectacular of each main group’s examples of weaving is the silk landap malong of the Maranaw, with their golden yellow squares bordered by floral bands in green, red, and purple; and the t’nalak of the T’boli, abaca-woven bleached white patterns of buwaya and human figures set in deep brown, among large diamonds alternating with red bands that looks like the glistening skin of a python from afar. 

The rich chromaticity of a modern Mandaya dagmay blouse in red and blue cotton indicates its origins in trading with lowland Bisayans in the 20th Century, but still retains its archaic pattern of intricate beadwork in scaffold-like x’s running through the large part of the back and sleeves.

The austere deep brown against red and yellow supplementary embroidery pattern identifies this blouse as that of the T’boli kegal. The use of human figures joined-armed and set among larger sections of diamond borders with richly geometric floral or animal figure medallions bespeak of these people’s famed preservation of animistic faith despite being in close proximity to Islamized neighbors.  

The austere deep brown against red and yellow supplementary embroidery pattern identifies this blouse as that of the T’boli kegal. The use of human figures joined-armed and set among larger sections of diamond borders with richly geometric floral or animal figure medallions bespeak of these people’s famed preservation of animistic faith despite being in close proximity to Islamized neighbors.

Indeed, to talk about each Mindanao group’s unique textile designs, terms, and methods would fill up entire encyclopedia volumes. For now, the examples of the Nikki Coseteng Collection can be viewed in the pages of Roces’ book to re-educate viewers about the power of tradition and native artistry that demands continuation and reincarnation, before forgetfulness and ignorance destroy˜ these most fragile of Filipino cultural design assets forever.

This article was first published in BluPrint Volume 5 2013. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

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