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How t’nalak looms the threads of T’boli traditions

T’nalak represents both the T’boli community’s personal dream and their tribe’s rich culture.

In the colorful medium of textiles, perhaps there is no local fabric more hypnotic than the t’nalak. Vividly depicted in the 2014 film, K’na the Dreamweaver, weavers are said to picture complex design through ethereal visions from the spirit of abacá, Fu Dalu. Along with scenes of nature and folktales woven in its intricate patterns, every fiber of t’nalak holds T’boli traditions that still continue to this day.

Dream a little weave

Though T’boli communities can be found across Region XII, the heart of t’nalak production resides in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association President Jenita Eko describes the community as proud bearers of their heritage. “Ang mga T’boli ay unang-una sa kultura,” she shares. “Lalong pinayaman nila at niyayakap ‘yung pag-practice ng kultura.” 

(The T’boli champion their culture. They further enrich and embrace it through their practices.)

Maria “Oyog” Todi, a T’boli cultural worker and consultant on K’na the Dreamweaver, echoes Eko’s sentiments, emphasizing that the arts are part of the tribe’s cultural identity—especially their t’nalak. In the past, Todi details, “Ginagamit [siyang] parang dowry for a bride kasi [ang] equivalent ng eight to 10 meters [of t’nalak], parang isang kalabaw.”

(It serves as dowry for a bride. . . it’s almost worth one carabao.)

But nowadays, t’nalak weaving organizations in Lake Sebu adhere to a comprehensive code of practices, passed on by their late elders. “Nagsimula ang ating weaving designs doon sa mga dreams [ng cultural masters], at trina-translate nila into [the] loom,” Eko describes. While she herself is a skilled t’nalak weaver, she warns that creating t’nalak is not for the faint of heart. Typically, four meters of fabric can take at least two months to finish, depending on how many people work on it.

(Our weaving designs came from the dreams of our cultural masters and they translated dreams into designs weaved into the loom.)

At the end of mewel or the weaving stage, the weaver would “talk” to the fabric, serving as the T’boli’s spiritual connection to Fu Dalu. “Minsan nilalapatan nila ng kanilang laway ang loom [at] sabay humihingi ng basbas [sa pagputol] ng ating loom,“ Eko describes. The current generation of dreamweavers relies on the designs passed down by their community’s elders that are compiled in a swatch book. Although the weaving association president says many weavers still receive dreams from Fu Dalu who leads them to modify existing designs. 

(Sometimes, they’d dab their saliva on the loom, while asking for a blessing to cut the loom.)

Since time immemorial, T’boli women exclusively crafted the t’nalak textile, as they are the only ones who receive Fu Dalu’s visions. Back then, it was the women who were often left at home, leaving them with time to let their minds wander. Eko points out, “Sa tingin ko…ganoon ‘yung nag-udyok na…[gumawa] ng t’nalak kasi nakikita nila na from the very start, parang libangan.” She shares that their female ancestors may have started weaving simply as a pastime. But their unmatched artistry and patience in creating t’nalak has elevated the stature of women in the community; they became breadwinners of their families, alongside the men who’d customarily be the family’s sole providers.

(I think that’s what pushed them to work on t’nalak because they saw it from the very start as a creative outlet or pastime.)

Picking up threads

Today, t’nalak thrives on a global scale, being used to make tapestries, clothes, and even bags. Eko calls it a “cloth of prestige”, for the intricacy of creating the fabric makes it one noble undertaking.

Further, t’nalak is one of the country’s products granted with geographical indication (GI) by the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines. Todi explains that the GI mark signifies that a product comes from a specific origin and possesses qualities from the place. T’nalak’s GI collectively identifies the fabric as an original product of Lake Sebu and nowhere else, “When you talk about t’nalak, it talks about [the] T’boli [tribe, too].”

Unfortunately, Todi worries about the market’s lack of sensitivity and awareness on the cultural integrity of t’nalak, since the fabric has many prohibitions to its use, such as using it for footwear. 

Many middlemen—especially designers and luxury brand owners—would eagerly capitalize on the cultural value, dismissive of the t’nalak’s code of practice. Seeing as their work is not duly appreciated in the market, some weavers began to forego the traditional weaving process. Eko frets, “[‘Yung] ibang merkado na walang pakialam, basta lang mabigyan sila ng disenyo [at] maka-export sila.” 

(Some sellers do not care as long as they receive the design and get to export the finished products.)

Still, the T’boli are stepping up to ensure the textile remains authentic to them. T’nalak Tau Sebu, a coalition of eight women weaver organizations in Lake Sebu, is planning to register at least 50 weave patterns as intellectual property. Todi notes that, if granted, the dreamweaver designs cannot be copied and reproduced in other fabrics. “Since nagsimula naman ang weaving namin sa panaginip, nananaginip kami kung papaano siya protektahan,” Eko adds.

(Since our weaving started with a dream, we also dream of how to protect it.)

Fiber of their being

Awareness is always the first and crucial step; we are equally responsible for the preservation of our diverse culture. That is why Eko calls on clothing brands who use t’nalak to respect its cultural integrity and also encourages the public to purchase from legitimate T’boli organizations that follow the traditional t’nalak weaving process.

Meanwhile, Todi points out that preserving the fabric also entails taking care of the environment. She emphasizes the need for the leaves of the knalum tree and loko plant used for the t’nalak’s black and red dyes, “What if in the future wala silang [makukuhanan] ng mga natural dye? Mawawala na ‘yung pagka-natural [ng t’nalak],” she stresses. 

(What if, in the future, they won’t have a source for natural dye anymore? The t’nalak will lose its organic qualities.)

If the local weaving industry can be further developed, Eko knows it would help the T’boli become content living in their homeland. “Hindi nila kailangan makipagsapalaran sa Manila para [magtrabaho],” she opines. And most importantly, the exquisite t’nalak would be continually produced by the new generation of T’boli.

(They wouldn’t need to risk going to Manila for work.)

T’nalak is the heart of T’boli culture because it represents the people’s skills, spirituality, and dreams. Eko believes the traditional dreamweaving process is an indispensable aspect of the woven cloth. Despite the fast-paced progress brought by modernization and the heavy influence of foreign culture on us, masterful craftsmanship will always be intertwined with our culture’s visual identity. As Todi remarks, “Many are weavers but only few are dreamweavers.”

By Anakin Loewes Garcia

By Lizelle Villaflor

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