T'nalak - Centuries-old Method of Tie-dye Weaving by T'boli Women

Various t'nalak designs
Various t'nalak designs
These handicrafts greatly help in supporting the livelihood project of South Cotabato tribals.
These handicrafts greatly help in supporting the livelihood project of South Cotabato tribals.
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T’boli T’nalak Weaving – A Centuries-old Tradition of Tie-dye Weaving in the Philippines

By Edwin C. Mercurio

An exotic fabric made through a centuries-old process of tie-dye weaving by the T’boli women of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato has captured the fancy of Filipinos as well as people around the world. Called t’nalak, it is made into bags of different sizes, attaché case, wall decors, blankets, jackets, purse, clothing, cigarette case, belts, portfolio and others.

The t’nalak occupies a special significance in the lives of the T’boli tribe. Basically used for blankets and clothing, the t’nalak is considered helpful for safe delivery when used as pre-natal covering. Sla-i (marriage arrangements) are considered lousy without it during the exchange of kemu (traditional properties) such as heirlooms, gongs, horses, work animals, ancient swords and other tribal artefacts.

The presence of the cloth during certain feast gives it a sacred value. T’bolis consider it taboo to cut the cloth because they believe that act will make them seriously ill. Tribe members who sell the fabric often attach bells to appease the spirits said to have guided the weavers.

Superstition surrounds the making of the fabric. T’boli libon (tribeswomen) who make the elaborate weaving and design find it easy to process the cloth after a dream. Designs they see clearly in their dreams have certain meanings and requirements.

“When I dream about the gamayaw logi, a cloth design embodying the male and female symbol, that means my husband and myself have to abstain from any sexual contacts for the duration of the weaving,” said first class weaver Ye Lo.

“If we do, the threads will break and the woven design won’t emerge clearly,” she adds.

Gabriel Ungkal, an expert T’boli classifier said that out of some 2,000 T’boli weavers, only 21 are class “A” rated weavers. “Majority of the expert weavers, refuse to follow any ordered designs unless they dream about it,” he said.

Expert weavers are being encouraged by the Santa Cruz Mission of Lake Sebu, to pass on their unique skills to their female children to ensure a next generation of women weavers.

The making of the t’nalak is a tedious process composed of rituals especially done during the night when the air is cool and the fibre is at the right elasticity.

The weaving of the cloth takes almost two and a half months for a piece about 20 feet long.

During the weaving process, silence and an atmosphere of solemnity is observed by the members of the household. A single mistake in the weaving pattern due to distraction would mean repeating the whole process from the very beginning.

The t’nalak is a product of a unique and tedious method of tie-dye weaving, a very meticulous process of cloth designing done on a bamboo and wooden loom.

The gathering and processing of materials alone are highly complicated. Fibres selected from fruit-bearing abaca plants (Manila hemp) usually about 18 months old, are stripped by hand from the soft wet pulp of the plant’s stalk. This is then made flaxen and pliable by repeated combing and weeks of air drying.

After some time, the fibres are laid out on a simple wooden loom. The abaca fibres now stretched out on the loom are tied with other fibres rubbed in beeswax. The area covered by the waxed strings will not be penetrated by the dye.

The process of tying itself is real artistry because no measuring instrument is used. Only the finger joints (length of the index fingers) are used to measure the intricate designs. Yet, patterns emerge with artistic consonance and precision.

After the painstaking tying, the fibres are then prepared for dyeing. The black dye is extracted from the leaves of the kenalum tree. The red dye is taken from the roots of the loco tree.

In the dyeing process, two earthen pots, one on top of the other, mouth to mouth, are then used to boil the fibres repeatedly, for three weeks, for the black colour and only two days for the red. Steam pushes the dye upwards to the bundle of tied threads in the upper pot. After the dark colour has been achieved, some waxed strings are removed.

The newly-exposed areas are then dyed red. A variety of colours (black, dark, cream and the natural flaxen colour of the fibre) can be produced by removing the remaining waxed ties. When the dyeing process is completed, the fibres are then removed and rinsed along river banks or streams.

Patterns and designs range from the tranan suwu (snake), sobo bun (frog), betek boluk (flower designs), bed buyus (spear), buling longit (clouds), bangala (house) and scores of others.

After the rinsing process, the cloth is again air dried for a week. It then undergoes the lemubag (wood pounding) where the fibres are rendered pliant and flexible.

For the final touch, the t’nalak is laid out on a bamboo fixture where it finally passes through the ‘smaki’ (shell rubbing), a method of bringing out the lustre of the finished cloth. T’boli craftswomen use the saki, a big turtle-shaped sea shell for this purpose.

The ‘smaki’ (saki shell-rubbing process) brings out the waxy sheen of the cloth.

Davao City residents who recently took a penchant for things ‘native’ are craving to lay their hands on various t’nalak designs (all designs are uniquely different). Home owners with ‘a touch of class’ use t’nalak for upholstery of sofa sets, dining tables and wall decors. Professionals with sophisticated taste go for t’nalak attaché case, portfolio or handbags and layered jackets.

The exceptional quality of the fabric is a rich legacy of creative art handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Perhaps what made the t'nalak clothe making endure for centuries is the artistic and spiritual dedication by the T'boli women of Lake Sebu. (The hinterland town of Lake Sebu situated two thousand feet above sea level in South Cotabato, Southern Mindanao, Philippines is populated by five other indigenous tribes speaking entirely different and distinct languages not found in other provinces of the country or elsewhere).

The cultural and spiritual significance of the t'nalak in the lives of the Mindanao "Lumads" (People of the Earth) coupled with the loving desire of the indigenous women to teach their daughters this special skill and lifetime livelihood continue to strengthen the bond between the old and the new generations of native women.

Indeed, the t’nalak which gives colour to the T’boli world stands as a proud symbol of a rich cultural heritage and a strong bond which continue to remind Filipinos of their long forgotten ancestors.


Comments 13 comments

textilethreadart 16 months ago

Hello! I've read your article and I am more interested about the textile THREADS produced by the T'boli tribe. It seems that I can't go to their place this year due to conflict of schedules. May I know where can I buy or purchase T'boli threads? It would be a great help.

Thank You!

PS: Thank you for sharing this remarkable information about the T'boli weavers.


MercuryNewsOnline profile image

MercuryNewsOnline 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment Melanie.

I visited Lake Sebu last week and bought t'nalak from internationally-acclaimed T'nalak artist/weaver Lang Dulay. Will post new artwork and photos as updates once I return to Canada.


melanie 4 years ago

i love t'nalaks... its because, it is part of our culture.. and also.. my lola lang dulay is one of the most popular weaver of t'nalaks...


MercuryNewsOnline profile image

MercuryNewsOnline 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

Thank you for your wonderful comment and interest in supporting the Philippine tribal community's handicraft and livelihood projects. I am sure you will be most welcome to inquire about purchasing this specially made and handwoven fabric. Please write to Maria Gandam, Santa Cruz Mission Schools, Inc. (SCMSI) School President, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, Philippines 9512.

Best regards, Edwin.


Painter Penfield profile image

Painter Penfield 5 years ago from Tampa Bay area Florida

Oh! I really like this. Any chance of getting a link to find out where to buy some items made with this special cloth? I would love to support the tribal community's efforts to sustain their economy.


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MercuryNewsOnline 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

It is extremely gratifying to read such comment from someone like you who knows and practices the delicate art of handicraft making. Indeed, the T'nalak making of the T'boli tribe of South Cotabato, Philippines, I believe,is one of a kind and I consider as a world class piece of art.

Thanks for your vote, craftybegonia. It's a pleasure.


craftybegonia profile image

craftybegonia 5 years ago from Southwestern, United States

What a beautiful craft! Being an artisan myself I can appreciate the workmanship. Thanks for sharing, voted up!


MercuryNewsOnline profile image

MercuryNewsOnline 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

I'm glad to know that New Yorkers like yourself appreciate the beauty of these items because they are indeed works of beauty and art, with intricate designs often created out of dreams, not from an automatated or computerized machine. If you have a chance to watch them weave and see the amount of effort put into creating one, you will not even negotiate for a price lower than what they will ask for which is. indeed, a pittance for North Americans. Thanks BkCreative.


BkCreative profile image

BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

This is just beautiful to look at - all the fabric and items. The nicest thing about those woven items is that they last forever and you can pass them on - or even reuse the fiber. Just so wonderful.

Great hub - thanks for sharing some beauty today with some great information!


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MercuryNewsOnline 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

The intricate designs are really fascinating work of art. I have not seen any of the T'boli women using measuring instruments nor patterns. They used their index fingers and thumbs as their yard sticks. Hats Off ! To these women. Thanks Lynda.


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MercuryNewsOnline 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada Author

Wow ! Thanks. Never expected that. I hope my score rises, too, Daisyjae. At least, my painstaking research and mountain climbing sorties visiting native communities are being appreciated.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

FAscinating and how beautiful the patterns are. Lynda


daisyjae profile image

daisyjae 6 years ago from Canada

What an interesting hub! Rated up!

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