Tingguians, they are called. She of the sub-group Illaud. Her name: Norma Agaid Mina, 78. And she has spawned generation after generation of loom masters.
“I was in Grade 6 when I learned to weave. Nagbakbak ako ng sinulid, nag-alis ng buto ng cotton o ng bayabas para magkulay tayo [stripped fibers, removed cotton seeds and guava seeds for coloring]. But I was interested in weaving. Whenever my mother left her loom, I took her seat and learned to weave,” Norma said. Soon she was helping her mother barter their bright, woven garments.
In Barangay Namarabar, Peñarubia, some seven kilometers from Abra’s largest town of Bangued, Norma or “Mommy” to her eight grown-up children take their living history of weaving to heart.
Narrated Norma: “In our clan, we all weave. We weave inside the house when it rains or outside when there is no rain. The cock’s first crow is the signal for waking up to weave. We only stop for coffee, for lunch and dinner or when it’s time to feed the pigs. Weaving gives us the income that supports our children’s school needs. We weave and we embroider.”
To sustain the long hours of weaving, Norma uses as a pillow the smoothened half of a coconut shell when taking a nap. “So I don’t get too comfortable,” she said, adding that she does not stop until she has finished weaving a fabric the size of a blanket.
Her eldest daughter Ma. Zita Benabese follows her mother’s style of work.
“I start weaving at 7 a.m., after doing the laundry and weave until 12 midnight,” Zita said.
The Tingguians are famous for their dexterity in utilizing natural dyes to color their threads. Long ago, they sourced these threads from Chinese tradesmen. It was a barter: threads in exchange for fruits.
And from fruits, tree barks, and native plants they got these desired colors—red (atchuete), blue (Malatayum or indigo plant), yellow (jackfruit and ginger), light green (camachile), brown (bark of the Narra tree) and a shade of pink (lightly boiled kapok or cotton).
Norma said they would pray to the stone goddess before weaving. She mentioned that her clan is descended from the mandadawak, a holy entity that is empowered to ask the gods (anito) about the chosen design for the fabric they will weave.
“We have a ritual,” said Norma, “we kill the black pig and dance before asking the anito what our design shall be. The design is placed in a goron or design stick. It can be a deer, a horse, an eagle, a lizard, rivers, mountains, or a sampaga—a wild pink or red flower with petals like that of a gumamela. Sometimes we weave an attire for weddings, sometimes for mourning. It may come as a surprise but even a blind mandadawak can fashion a design on the goron.”
On an average day, Norma said she can weave a seven meter-fabric. They charge P2,000 for a dress with beautiful designs, P1,500 for a seven yard-blanket, P300 for a throw pillow with embroidery, and P150 for a plain woven pillow.
A woven blouse and skirt dress with embroidery can range from P3,500 to P6,500.
And because times are hard, the Tingguian women also sell their heirloom beads and necklaces. Agate necklaces cost P25,000. A set of earrings and necklace beads are priced at P2,500 while a headpiece or head dress carries a price tag of P8,000.
“The beads are inherited,” Norma said, and when asked where they came from, she responds with a smile: “bunga ng kahoy ng engkantada [fruit of the tree of the enchantress].”
Zita said that before their tribe had a surfeit of heirloom beads, but over the years, many have been sold to cover the cost of educating their children.
“I can weave up to 15 yards a day,” Zita said. “On a good month, my family and I can earn between P30,000 to P50,000, especially when there is a bazaar. We come to Manila three times a year to sell our woven items. Because otherwise, we have no income.”
It was in one of the bazaars in Glorietta, Makati that Zita and Norma met Jenny Bonto, the executive director of Artists Welfare Project, Inc. (AWPI).
A true-blue development worker, Jenny helped them sell their products online and even bought for them a much-needed loom through crowd funding.
“As AWPI executive director, my role was to provide welfare access to the most number of artists, artisans, craftsmen, stuntmen, production crew, and all other folks in the creative industry who take part in developing our national culture,” she said.
Jenny also does volunteer work for the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple which promotes Humanistic Buddhism through the arts. “The temple also had a gallery that ran exhibitions by international artists throughout the year. When Master Zhu Xu, Gallery In Charge asked me to scout for Filipino artists who were willing to exhibit for 2 months at the Fo Guang Yuan Manila Art Gallery, I suggested the Tingguian Weavers. I was so grateful that the Venerables agreed to exhibit their works because I know inside a proper gallery, their weaves will be properly displayed and their stories properly conveyed compared to a tiangge bazaar.”
It was woven fabric turned to a canvas for indigenous art. Geometric designs of horses, rivers, mountains, birds, and lizards telling the story of the Tingguian tribe—their landscape and life.
At the exhibit a young millenial Maryrose Villena, studying Fashion Design in the College of Saint Benilde made clothes using the Tingguian textile.
Zita said that in their community of 300 Tingguians, only 32 weavers are left. “We have difficulty getting government support for our woven products.”
Fortunately for these Tingguian women weavers, their paths crossed with that of Jonas George Soriano, Assistant Secretary of Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco.
Jenny related that at the opening of the exhibit, Soriano encouraged Norma to send a proposal to the Office of the President should they need a weaving center. G