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Weaving Tradition in the Philippines from the northern Iloko weave to the southern T’nalak

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Weaving is one of the oldest traditional art forms in the world. In the Philippines, evidence of weaving dates back to the 13th Century, before any colonizers set foot in the country. The most common raw materials are cotton, abaca, and pineapple leaves.


This blog will focus on two indigenous weaving practices in the Philippines. First, the Iloko weave of the Ilocanos that has seen great transformations over time, and second, the T’nalak by the southern T’boli tribe that has persisted in much the same form.


Weaving is a form of art, an expression of one’s culture, and it has played important roles in the local and global economy. Weaving was originally practiced by necessity as a part of a subsistence lifestyle, to create clothes and other textile goods. These products were eventually traded between community groups. One notable example is the white blanket Iloko weave, popularly called Abel, that was traded with the northern Ibalois (another indigenous group in the northern Philippines) who used this white blanket for death and burial practices. Weaving has also been a part of the standard education for women in the northern cordillera region, while the men were taught carving, agriculture, and mining. Play the video below to listen to Professor Io Jularbal of the University of the Philippines Baguio share about the history and tradition of weaving in the northern Philippines.



Across the globe, many forms of weaving have been lost over time due to financial strife, weaver migration, mass production by non-natives, and lack of interest among the younger generations. The ancient traditional Iloko weave may be at risk as well. The pressure of the weavers to produce more products for commercial purposes has dramatically changed the quality and artistry of their work, and the old practice is largely ignored.


Fortunately, many traditional forms of weaving are still alive and well in the Philippines. One of these is T’nalak weaving, a unique hand weaving technique developed by the T’boli indigenous peoples in Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines.


The T’boli community prides itself not only on their beautiful natural environment, but also the colorful traditional attire made from their unique T’nalak weaving process. In the next video, we hear from some of the T’boli women sharing about their headdress (called sewat), decorated blouse (kegal bentilas), and rectangular wraparound skirt (lewek tedeyung).



The T’boli is one of the 17 major indigenous groups living in Mindanao, collectively called the Lumad. They predominantly occupy a city in South Cotabato called Lake Sebu (not to be confused with Cebu province in the middle island of the Philippines). While I personally have yet to visit Lake Sebu, I was excited to learn about it from my T’boli friends. It is most famous for its majestic waterfalls, clear lakes, rich biodiversity and unique culture. It is an emerging ecotourism destination in the Philippines. In the clip below, my friend Angie Nellas tells the story of her journey to Lake Sebu and how she met the Dreamweavers - the T’boli women who continue the T’nalak weaving tradition.



T’nalak weaving took a step further when the late Lang Dulay, a T’boli princess, was awarded the National Living Treasures Award, also called the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan. This is the highest state honor given to a Filipino in recognition of their exemplary work in traditional art. Lang Dulay created more than 100 unique weaving patterns, which she said were inspired by her dreams. Her students became the Dreamweavers we know and love today.


T’nalak textile production is a labor-intensive process. Each piece is woven with utmost care and takes about three months to complete. The unique style of crafting t’nalak and the story behind each pattern makes mass production an impossibility without eliminating everything special about the practice. The clip below will walk you through the process of t’nalak weaving using the wood fibers of the abaca (Musa textilis), a banana plant native to the Philippines.


After stripping the abaca fibers, threads are made by fastening the ends together. There are several steps in smoothing out the threads to a form that can be woven. Interestingly, the sheets of fabric are nearly fully formed before dyeing using natural dyes. Different sections of the sheets are tied up in a special design process so the dye only reaches the desired sections. Finally, the weaving and smoothing process completes the fabric. Check out the video to see the whole thing!



I am deeply inspired by the T’boli women carrying on the traditional way of weaving T’nalak. Lang Dulay’s own family has continued the tradition, and her children and grandchildren are known as the Betek Ifuy Dreamweavers. T’nalak weaving is laborious and time-consuming, and the final products are gorgeous and durable. The women are always working but often have trouble finding buyers - they are busy with their art!


As a way to support the Betek Ifuy Weavers, Pinay Artist is bringing the T’nalak and other T’boli products to the international market. See https://www.pinayartist.com/traditional-art.



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