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