Feature

Where Gods Loom

With centuries-old crafts at the core of their identity, the Ifugao town of Kiangan is fighting to preserve its heritage in the face of modern innovation.

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The woman, Bugan, was ill. A mysterious malaise had befallen her. She would not cook nor tend to the fields. Worse yet, she would not weave. Her poor husband, Wigan, tries all sorts of medicinal plants, but Bugan does not get better. In the throes of fever, she begs Wigan to go to the village in the east, where she saw weavers working on a different kind of loom, creating vibrant fabrics she had never before seen, and in half the time it takes her.
 
Desperate, Wigan goes to the weavers in the east and asks about their looms and colorful weaving. The weavers tell him to go to Kabunyan—the sky world—and ask the god Punholdayon to teach him the weavers’ secrets.
 
At the god Punholdayon’s house, the man Wigan pleads his case. The god Punholdayon asks his wife—also named Bugan—to teach Wigan the weavers’ secrets. The god Bugan speaks about the ablan—the backstrap loom—a simple loom design that straps the fabric against the weaver’s body to create tension. Punholdayon and Bugan’s other children teach Wigan all aspects of weaving including the binobodan or ikat, a thread dyeing technique to create patterns on the finished weave. The god Punholdayon gives the man Wigan this knowledge, and in exchange asks the man to perform yearly rituals in their names.
 
The man Wigan, returns to Pugao—the earth world—to his tribe, and to his wife with his new knowledge. Upon hearing the weavers’ secrets, the woman Bugan jumps to her feet, miraculously healed. She begins to weave. 
 
This is the myth of how the gods taught weaving to the people of Pugao, the people of the earth, the Ifugao.  
photo by Mixkaela Villalon
In the shadow of its more popular neighbors Banaue and Bontoc, Kiangan quietly holds itself as the oldest town in Ifugao province. It is the home of Wigan and Bugan, the mythical ancestors of all Ifugao, making Kiangan the birthplace of Ifugao culture.
 
The town is small and sleepy, far from the frantic energy of the city. There is one bank, one medical clinic, and no fast food restaurants. Signs litter the city, reminding locals to refrain from spitting moma or betel nut chew just anywhere. This, despite the spots of red-stained ground and mischievous red-tinged smiles of market vendors and tricycle drivers. Vegetables are fresh, cheap, and abundant, along with at least 24 varieties of local rice. Kiangan is a heritage town seemingly left untouched by the worries of modernity, fighting to reclaim the dignity of its heritage.
 
Much of Kiangan’s local arts and crafts remain a way of life here, but interest among younger Ifugao began to wane two generations ago. Heritage crafts are now seen as unprofitable. Modern education and the call of the city lure many Ifugao to the lowlands. “The American formal education system was designed to erase our savagery,” says Marlon Martin of the Indigenous People’s Heritage Center, with a wry smile and heavy use of air quotes.   
 
“They only call us indigenous because we were never conquered by the Spaniards,” says Martin who also works for the Save the Ifugao Rice Terraces Movement and the Kiangan Weavers Association. 
He points to the common understanding of the world-renowned Ifugao Rice Terraces as an example of our miseducation. The commonly held history is that the Spanish conquistadors pushed the Ifugao from the lowlands to hide in the mountains. “Who would painstakingly create these rice terraces by hand if they were running from invaders?” Martin asks. It is more plausible that the Ifugao dug their roots deep, fortified their position with a virtually unassailable mountain range that also served as their stable food supply. The rice terraces were a military strategy—a wildly successful one.
 
Today, the Ifugao rice terraces are an iconic vista that can be found from the 20-peso bill to sacks of rice that flood the market. Martin and other Ifugao chafe at this—many of the rice brands that use the rice terraces on its packaging get their rice from Taiwan and other non-local sources. They only capitalize on Ifugao’s reputation as a rich, rice-planting province. None of the proceeds of this foreign rice reach the Ifugao.
 
“It is cultural appropriation when something is used for profit that does not serve the community that it comes from. It does not recognize or disrespects its cultural roots,” Martin says.

Marlon Martin teaches visitors and guests about the different local cultural products in Kiangan. Martin is a member of the Indigenous People’s Heritage Center and founder of the Ifugao Heritage School.

Like rice planting, weaving and basketry are integral to Ifugao culture. After harvesting rice, cotton is planted in the fields during the fallow season to break the soil’s pest and disease cycles. In this time, Ifugao women work at the loom and men make basket products mostly for carrying and storing rice. 
 
These days, the weavers and basket-makers that Martin works with are mostly elderly and under-educated, forcibly humbled by the work that they do with their hands. Modest by nature, many indigenous craftsmen are taken advantage by exploitative middlemen who buy their products on consignment. This means the craftsmen are only paid a pittance once their products are bought by customers in Manila. Most are not aware that their products sell at triple or quadruple its price in the capital.
 
“They would say, “I’m just a weaver,” says Martin, explaining how local craftspeople undervalue their work. “I tell them, you’re not just a weaver. You’re a steward of our culture.”
 
On this, the Kiangan Weavers Association has made its stand. The Ifugao Heritage Center provides space for looms, for stretching out the threads so weavers can tie their patterns for dyeing, and for boiling plants that create natural dyes. Everyone that comes to the center and helps in the work are volunteers. Mothers would drop by to get some weaving in after bringing their children to school. They would take their weaving home with them to work on it in between house chores. When they are done with a piece, they would present it to Martin who would pay them immediately for the work. Honest labor deserves honest pay.
The Mumbaki (spiritual leaders) lead a ritual that tells of the myth of Wigan and Bugan, the ancestors of the Ifugao.
At her loom, master weaver Virginia Tuguinay weaves her silence into the fabric, nodding sagely. Eyeglasses perched on her nose, her knobbly hands pass the shuttle across the fabric’s warp and weft, the sound rhythmic as raindrops. She is a master of the supplementary warp, a decorative weaving technique where thread is added into the textile’s ground pattern in creating more ornate designs. Ask her a question and she looks up at you with twinkling eyes, lips pursed. She vaguely gestures at the moma she keeps in her cheek. Master weaver Virginia keeps her focus on the loom. 
 
In the coming months, the Kiangan weavers will officially nominate master weaver Virginia for the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA), an award the National Commission for Culture and Arts bestows on individuals recognized as National Living Treasures. To receive this award is to be ranked alongside legendary craftsmen like the T’boli weaver Lang Dulay and Kapampangan metalsmith Eduardo Mutuc. If master weaver Virginia is accepted, she will be the first Ifugao weaver to be conferred. Moreover, the award comes with a tidy pension that can most certainly help our aging craftsmen.
Weaving is changing. The craft grows and evolves according to the needs and realities of its community. When headhunting among the Ifugao went out of fashion, so did headhunter tattoos among their warriors. Instead, the warrior tattoo designs began showing up on textiles gifted to Ifugao men who join the police, the Philippine army, and even the underground communist rebellion—anyone deemed to take on the mantel of modern warriors. 
 
More than art, weaving is a means of livelihood. In order to survive, the patterns and designs on textiles coming from our indigenous communities adjust to the whims of the market. There is still a place, of course, for the traditional designs—for the Baniya or Bayawak, the god of life that came to Ifugao in the form of a monitor lizard to teach humans how to source water; the Ginlot or the god of war who watches over warriors and is represented in weaving by an S-like design; and Tinukud, the python god that guards sacred boundaries between life and death, between the soil and growth, and between neighbors’ rice fields. But the Ifugao gods are lost to the lowlanders who do not chant their names in thanks every year. Down here, we are more interested in the prestige of rocking traditional handmade mountain swag.
A few years ago, Ifugao textiles made fashion headlines when their sacred death blankets— traditionally used to cover dead nobles and give them safe passage into the next world—began showing up in some of Manila’s fashion collections as crop tops, gowns, and even a cover for a couch. “It’s good that people are interested in our textiles,” Martin says, “but did they have to use that design?”
 
Weaver Stephanie Ayahao has only recently picked up weaving, but her mind is ablaze with design ideas. She weaves traditional designs, but also contemporary ones with show-stopping colors and vibrant patterns. A young weaver with an eye for the modern, Ayahao has been to Japan and Indonesia through weaving symposiums and research programs. “You go out into the world and realize that you can weave like this, or you can weave like that. You get to see how other cultures are doing it, what their designs are,” she gushes. “When I came home, I tried to do something new but still use the traditional Ifugao techniques.”
 
Ayahao twirls under a gentle rain, her shoulders draped with a blanket that she herself made. “You notice the dye pattern? It’s reversed,” she says with pride. In traditional binobodan, textile threads are tied so that after dyeing, the tied parts are unraveled into clean, white patterns: a predominantly black and red blanket with patters of white bayawak, or white python. Instead, her blanket is white with patters of green bayawak. This means she tied 80% of the fabric’s thread, leaving the patterns untied so that the dye only seeps into that small space. It is a grueling task. “I thought I should sell this blanket, but it’s one of a kind. Why should I not have it? I made it!” weaver Ayahao laughs.
Rekindling the excitement and interests of weavers in Kiangan is the renewed use of cotton threads for their weaving. Since ancient times, cotton has been used in Ifugao textiles. In the south, the T’nalak weaving of the T’boli tribes in Southern Cotabato use abaca or Manila hemp, but in upland Ifugao, cotton is king. 
 
The past decades, however, saw Ifugao weavers importing cotton from China, who in turn gets their cotton from Russia. This was a cost-efficient move as planting and cultivating local cotton was time-consuming and yielded little profit. To stretch the imported cotton, weavers would add polyester threads, but not too much. Manipulating polyester hurts the weavers’ fingers and natural dyes have a weak colorfast on synthetic thread. Today’s weavers use a mix of natural and chemical dyes to achieve the same vibrant colors as their ancestors. 
 
“We used to have a natural source for red dye,” Martin muses. “A local root bark that we would boil and use for binobodan. But it has been lost to history. No one remembers what it was.” These days, Martin and some younger Ifugao have been experimenting, trying to locate the ancient source of red dye that would provide a consistent shade of red that does not wash out. Perhaps another visit to the god Punholdayon’s house is due in this generation. 
To resolve the issue of cotton, the Kiangan Weavers Association partnered with the Habi Philippine Textile Council. Established in 2009, Habi was formed to preserve, promote, and enhance the Philippine textile industry. The first step in doing this is to reinvigorate the Philippine cotton industry. With help from the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority, Habi aims to have more Philippine cotton farms around the country.
 
Today, the textiles coming out of Kiangan are made of 100% Philippine cotton. The weavers can go through 50 kilos of Habi cotton in a month’s time. Fair compensation for their work, steady encouragement for creativity and innovation in designs, and the return to using local cotton have pulled the excited weavers back to their looms. “We now have more products than we are selling,” Martin says. This is a good problem to have. 
Local textile fairs like the Likhang Habi Market Fair have the Kiangan weavers in a tizzy. This is an opportunity not just to show off their wares, but also for the Ifugao weavers to meet other weavers from different areas of the country, admire each others’ work, and maybe learn from each others’ techniques. The textile fair quite literally is a convention for some of our under-appreciated but extremely talented local craftsmen.    
 
A word of caution: these handwoven textiles do not come cheap. Martin is quick to defend the hefty prices of their products. “You may think twenty-one thousand pesos for a blanket is expensive, but do you know how it was made?” Martin asks. “Four people to work on processing the cotton into thread, then tying, dyeing, embroidery, and weaving. It will take them four to six months to finish a blanket. If you think about it, that price is cheap.” After all, it is not just a blanket. This is the price of preserving culture and providing our craftsmen with a dignified livelihood.
It is only 10 A.M. and the mumbaki or spiritual shamans are already deep into their baya or rice wine. They take turns pouring each other drinks and chanting the myth of how Wigan and Bugan brought the secrets of weaving from the gods to the earth. The ritual is punctuated by the slaughtering of chicken. 
 
Around them, the weavers work on every aspect of the weaving process. Some weave, some spool the cotton thread into balls, some tie the threads into patterns before dyeing. They work in the presence of the mumbaki’s chants, so that the gods may bless their weaving for another year.
 
One of the mumbaki nudges one of the elderly weavers. He passes a cup filled with baya and encourages everyone to drink. This is part of the ritual. Later, when the chants are finished and the slaughtered chickens become the lunchtime feast, the room will be filled with laughter and jokes. In Ifugao, rituals are both sacred and causes for celebration.
 
The mumbaki chant in an archaic version of Ifugao that their youngsters can barely understand. These are chants that they learned by heart, by listening to the mumbaki that came before them. Nothing is written, everything is passed through oral literature. These mumbaki are old now, and it is becoming more difficult to convince young people to join their ranks. Regardless, the ritual must be done. This is a promise between their ancestors and the gods.
 

 
The Likhang Habi Market Fair for handwoven textiles and crafts is happening this October 11–13 at the Glorietta Activity Center
 
*The Kiangan Weavers Association shares its offices with the Ifugao Indigenous Peoples Education Center in Kiangan, Ifugao. Weaving products can be bought directly from them during office hours. Contact them through (+63) 0975 308 1136.