I HAVE been attending the 5th ASEAN Traditional Textiles Symposium this past week in Chieng Mai, Thailand as member of HABI: The Philippine Textile Council. The symposium has been sponsored by Asean Foundation from its start in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2005 with other sponsors from each country where it has since taken place. The 2nd Asean Traditional Textiles Symposium was held in Manila in 2009 at the National Museum. These symposia are part of the Asean effort to conserve and continue the weaving traditions of each country. All of them including us have rich and varied indigenous fabrics made from time immemorial. Thus, the kind of woven products made, whether clothing or for other uses, is part and parcel of each country’s identity, calling to mind its identity via its environment, history, social organization and belief system, everything that makes it uniquely what it is.
What would the Philippines be without piña, it’s unique pineapple fabric, so closely and totally identified with us? What would Ilocos be like minus Inabel, it’s weaving tradition from times past to times now?
What would Mindanao mean without its varied, colorful weaving? The answer is they would be diminished, different and bland, losing essential character which would in turn affect our identity, make it vague, narrowed. A lessening of spirit, a loss of soul.
In fact, a catastrophic assault on the Filipino identity.
All Asean countries in the Asean Traditional Textile Arts Community feel the same way and have united to preserve their heritage, in the case of traditional textiles with regular symposia. Their world has to modernize, progress, have higher standards of living but traditions must not in the process be discarded. Ancient ways that have deep meaning and reflect uniqueness of character are precious customs, a gift from our forefathers that must be guarded and defended.
In keeping with all of the above, the symposium’s theme was “Connecting Centuries of Tradition.” Speakers presented papers showing how traditional textiles can find a place, a much appreciated role in modern societies. Using new designs for new lifestyles, finding new uses in modern environments is a challenge that traditional textiles can meet and win. As the machine age bears down and virtually every handicraft is a product of mass manufacture, the ultimate luxury is something hand-made. The imprint of personal achievement by an individual overrides a machine-made product.
This year the symposium concentrated on workshops for natural dyes.
Various materials traditionally used to color fabric thread were used in demonstrations given by either ethnic minorities with rich weaving traditions of Thailand as well as prominent practitioners of traditional Thai weaving.
Indigo, sampan wood, certain dried insects, vegetables were used to make natural dyes by processing through various mixtures and the use of water and heat. It was fascinating to watch traditional weaving communities take indigo leaves, crush and then boil them in water mixed with alum to produce a thick wax-like blue black liquid in which yarns were soaked at intervals (to come up for air and be oxidized), a chemical process as ancient and still modern as it is.
All these dyeing techniques are painstaking, traditional and environmental for their use of natural material reflecting each people’s adjustment and use of its environment, fashioning their culture uniquely, totally and for all time as its own.
Weaving which encompasses all of these environmental adjustments- from its use of natural materials to the process used to answer a need in society for them in that moment define a world and its people. That is why it is so precious, meaningful and vital.
It is time our government, educational and cultural institutions and individuals understand its essence and move more in concert to conserve and develop it to keep it alive and relevant.