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Northern Luzon highland textiles

A brief account by Eric Anderson

click on thumbnail image to go to enlargement

to Jpeg 55K Detail of a Bontoc woven textile from the highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to Jpeg 51K A detail of an ancient blanket. These blankets have anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures reminiscent of Chinese and possibly Indonesian design; Iloilo, Philippines

to Jpeg 57K Detail of a twill weave used in some textiles in the highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to 58K A gilamat textile originally from Lubuagan but popular all over Kalinga, highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to Jpeg 55K A detail of a Tinguian white skirt, highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

In general it can be said that southern Philippine and Indonesian textiles are more splendid than Northern Luzon highland textiles, and collectors of these are therefore often characterized as esoteric. The interest in cotton textiles from the north invariably is an offshoot of a fascination with the complex and intriguing cultures of the Cordillera mountains of Northern Luzon. For the select few who have delved into this field, and who have developed a respect for the way of thinking and behaving of these peoples, it is a privilege to own a small piece of this vanishing culture - a culture associated with bravery, tenacity, intelligence, beauty and harmony with nature.

Early examples of weaving consisted of basketry weaves, knotting and braiding, using vegetable fibers such as cane (rattan), nito, and bark (rammie). The Indonesian style back strap loom was first taken into use by the adjacent coastal people (Ilocanos), from where it spread into Abra (Itneg), Kalinga, and the Cagayan valley (Ibanag and Gaddang) to the east. At this time all these people were spirit and ancestor worshippers. When the first Spanish colonizers arrived in Ilocos in the 1570's they discovered that white cotton textiles were widespread. Such textiles were probably similar to examples collected in Abra during the 19th century. Cotton was introduced into Ilocos by Chinese traders during the late Sung dynasty. Ilocano textiles were widely traded in most areas among the highlanders, and regional preferences developed. top

Among the Isneg and Banao in the northern part of the mountains, weaving was never adopted. The Itneg, eastern Kalinga, and Gaddang appear to have been the first to adopt weaving, but when this occurred is uncertain. The Ifugao, Bontoc, southwestern Kalinga, Lepanto and Kankanay are thought to have adopted weaving relatively recently, perhaps only in the 18th century. Their weaving styles are distinctively different, and this must indicate the existence of a south-eastern "valley" weaving tradition (Issinay), versus the aforementioned northern tradition (Ilocano). The Ibaloy and the Ilongot peoples in the southern highlands did not weave. top

In addition to plain weave, the northern weavers produce a variety of twill weaves. Textiles are embellished with knotted selvages and seams, floating warps and complimentary wefts. Embroidery is also used. An 16th century textile thought to be woven by an Ilocano in Iloilo is of a pinilian type with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures reminiscent of Chinese and possibly Indonesian design. A great variety of pinilian blankets are found from Ilocos to Kalinga. The most intricate ones are now found in Abra, while only two simple types are used in Kalinga. In Ilocos the optical binakol design had become very popular by the end of the 19th century, and these were also woven in Abra and traded with the Kalinga. The binakol design is probably copied from eastern European textiles. Among the Kalinga and Gaddang fancy striped designs were prevalent. One such is the gilamat. This textile is originally from Lubuagan, but it is popular all over Kalinga. The weave of the modern gilamat is plain, albeit an old type is twilled and decorated with silk embroidery rather than cotton, an indication of class delineation. The stripes of Kalinga and Gaddang textiles are of a great variety, ranging from plain to intricate floating warps, "eye" designs and beautiful colorful twills. Although the designs are often symbolic, they are generally abstract and geometric in nature. Gaddang textiles are usually decorated with little seed beads. top

Textiles from the southern highland groups are plain weave decorated with a complicated figurative warp stripe design and supplementary warp at the end portions of some textiles. In rare instances ikat designs are found in Ifugao, and this can be explained by the proximity to the Issinay.

Vegetable dyes used were narra red, "black" red, indigo, green (gray), amber, yellow, and brown. Mineral dyes from Ilocos gradually replaced vegetable dyes in the first half of the 20th century. However, these mineral dyes were limited to a few hues, namely red, indigo, yellow, green and brown. Brown was mostly used together with natural thread (white), and rarely used together with many other colors. Imported chemical dyes made stronger inroads in the second half of the 20th century. top

Garments woven were skirts, loincloths, sashes, capes, headbands, blankets, blouses and undershirts. Pouches and bags were also made. Short pants were made in the Christianized part of Abra.

Before textiles were used, people wore bark cloth garments in the highlands. These were made from pounded bark and could be considered a remote cousin of felt cloth. Textiles were initially only worn by the wealthy. As such they were prestigious, and many were reserved for special functions such as birth, kanyaws (fiestas), and burial. As with many other material objects such as gongs and wooden sculptures, textiles could be inhabited by spirits. Some designs are specially created to trap or ward off spirits. Imperfection in design (or signatures) were deliberately added to create portals for the spirits to enter and depart the textile. This is particularly important with blankets, and probably all of the older blanket designs are associated with specific functions and uses. top

Eric Anderson, an engineer and economist, worked in the Philippines for seven years. He is now a procurement engineer for Aker Kvaerner, the Anglo Norwegian construction contractor. During his time in the Philippines Eric researched the Kalinga material culture as a hobby and the research resulted in the CD Rom "Kalinga Costumes". This monograph treats Kalinga for the first time as a group of tribes rather than as a single tribe. Eric has spoken on the subject at the Ayala Library in Manila, at the People's Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm and at the Textile Society of Hong Kong. Eric's collection of Kalinga textiles is one of the largest private collections in the world and consists of well over 100 important antique textiles.

to Jpeg 55 Detail of a Gaddang woven textile from the highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to Jpeg 55K An old photograph showing a Gaddang girl wearing a woven textile, highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to Jpeg 53K A detail of a pinilian blanket found from Ilocos to Kalinga, highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines

to Jpeg 55K A detail of floating weave Kalinga blanket, highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines
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this page last updated 20 February, 2012