High up on the contours of the colossal Cordillera mountains, North Luzon, Philippines, live the impecunious indigenous Ifugao people. Famed for their 2000 year old rice terraces, their resistance to Spanish colonisation and their outlandish inland outfits, Ifugao culture, visual identity and livelihood appears to be on the precipice of extinction.
In February 2016 I was accompanied to Banaue on a whirlwind tour with the Philippines Department of Tourism. There I was able to discuss life’s hardships with a few local ladies busking for photos on a viewpoint, and learn of the fading Animist practices rapidly being replaced by Christianity from a self taught Shaman.
Bent over double, the frail blind women shuffled over to the bench outside the gift shop before waving her hands underneath in search of something. “I’m sorry”, the Ifugao lady next to me apologized, “Why?” I asked. Right then the crippled blind member of their company pulled up her skirt and pee’d into the 2 liter 7up bottle she had been seeking moments before. “She is blind and deaf” She proclaimed to me and the other tourists whilst holding her steady. “She has no family. We all look after each other.”
Scattered in stilt houses surrounding scenic Lake Sebu live the textile tribal people known as the Tboli. One of the Philippines 80+ indiginous ethnic linguistic groups, the Tboli people live a simple life balancing modernization with their traditional culture of farming, fishing and craftsmanship.
Labeled as the the Dream Weavers the Tboli are famous for diligently transforming the natural Abaca plant into a magnificent mystic material known as the T’nalak. These distinctive sacred symmetrical designs are inspired directly from the visions in their dreams and taught in T’boli schools of living tradition. More fascinating than the process of the T’nalak, is that the Tboli women’s distinctively adorned cultural dress was only implemented a mere 60 years ago, when Christian missionaries brought new materials and skills into the region.
Within moments of researching Filippino tribes I was awe struck by the resplendent regalia of the Tboli people. Their elaborate hair combs, intricate jewelry, colourful weaving and mysterious motifs. I wanted to learn everything about them and felt filled with excitement of the prospect of connecting with new ethnicities after Vietnam. This was to be short lived reaction when moments after my discovery a well respected travel professional (and good friend) advised me that it would be near suicide to ever see the Tboli in person. Since the 1950s parts of Mindanao Island have seen a brutal civil war between Christian and Muslim freedom fighters, with off sprung terrorist groups regularly kidnapping western tourists for ransom.
Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to be told that you can’t go somewhere and research these amazing people because of terrorism? It sucks. So I let it go, thinking I would have to be bonkers to ignore his and a million other websites advice.
Fast track 1 month later and I’m sat with the general secretary of the Department of Tourism in Manila, discussing where and whom to visit on my tour of the Philippines. “You have to see the Tboli!” he said, “I really really really want to see the Tboli, their textiles look phenomenal”, “You have to go and see them”, “But is it safe? (mum stop reading), I read that there was a rebel shoot out on Lake Sebu only a few months ago??”, “Yes it’s safe, that was a one off incident. I will guarantee your safety, you will be with our people the whole time. You must go and see the Tboli”.
Meeting the Tboli
A short 1 hour flight from Zamboanga city after meeting the Yakan tribe and bonkers Donna was greeted by the regional director of tourism Nelly Dillera at General Santos airport. We took a 4×4 through the pineapple fields and up the the mountainous terrain to the pretty and picturesque Lake Sebu. As I stepped onto the stone driveway a tribal fusion of brass, leather and wooden instruments spilled out of the long house to greet my arrival.
Meeting the Tboli’s for the first time was a overwhelming sensory experience. Smiling men and women were dressed in full regalia, the walls were dripping with decorations, fabrics and jewelry, and the music engulfed me like the warmest welcome i’ve ever received. Before investigating the tribal textile techniques and traditional dress I was treated to a charming performance of Tboli rituals, music and dance.
Tboli Traditional Dress
Remarkably Tboli tribal visual identity was only created as we know it today 60 or so years ago, when Christian missionaries arrived in the area bringing with them mother of pearl beads, cotton fabrics and threads. Before this date Tboli women only wore simple silhouettes made from natural woven abaca fibre with no resounding design features.
Tboli traditional dress is the most impressive tribal ensemble I have seen to date. Traditional colours are jet black, scarlet red, pearl white, canary yellow and tropical green. Outfits are comprised of a hand woven sarong skirt tied into a knot at the front, folded over at the waist and secured in place with a wide beaded belt fringed with brass bells. Long sleeved v-neck blouses have a zip opening on both side seams and are decorated with embroidery, cross stitch, applique ribbons and sequins or beads. The jewel of the crown is the famous hand carved wooden head dress.
Land of the Dream Weavers
The Tnalak is the traditional woven textile of the Tboli people. Mystical symmetrical patterns inspired by their dreams are created from memory and transferred in to fabric using the Ikat method. Ikat is a time consuming and tedious technique only used by the most patient artisans. Yarns covered in bees wax are tightly wrapped around the warp threads in patterns before dying and then being placed on the loom. During the dyeing process, the tied parts are resistant to the dye, when the binds are cut they will retain the natural colour of the original fibre underneath.
The Abaca plant is native to the Philippines and is used as the main fibre in Tnalak fabric. Cousin to the banana plant, Abaca trucks can grow up to 22ft in just 8 months. Once they are cut down the trunk is halved and stripped into 1 inch ribbons before shredding with a knife into individual lengths of fibre suitable for weaving. Natural dyes from leaves and roots grown locally are boiled with the Abaca to create the traditional Tnalak colours of black, red and beige.
The Tboli tribe are a mix of Animist and Christian faith. They believe that non-human entities such as animals, plants, and mountains etc possess a spiritual essence, along side worshiping Jesus Christ. The Abaca plant itself is known as the spirit god ‘Fu Dalu’. The making of Tnalak fabric is seen a very special gift from nature and the spirit world, therefore it is forbidden to step over or walk on Tnalak fabric at any point. It was brought to my attention that a fashion designer recently bought bolts of Tnalak fabric and manufactured shoes with it. This was seen as sacrilege to the Tboli people.
During my visit to the Tboli weaving centre Manlikika Bayan, it was evident that they were still mourning the loss of their leader, grandmother and National Living Treasure Awardee Mrs Lang Dulay, who’s memorial grave lays opposite the entrance. Lang Dulay was known nationwide as the originator and master weaver of Tnalak. Weaving since the age of 12, Lang Dulay translated over 100 designs from her dreams and made it her personal mission to instill her passion and vision for Tboli culture on her family, by taking her 18 grandchildren and great grandchildren out of school to train them in the making of Tnalak. Tourists from all over the Philippines would flock to see and buy Tnalak from the living legend and her aspiring proteges, but last year at the age of 91 she passed away from a stroke leaving behind a financially dependent family of weavers with little other employability skills. The family are now desperately trying to find the balance between economic stability and continuing their cultural heritage now that Lang Dulay the master dreamweaver has gone.
“The lives of T’boli women are meaningless if they don’t know how to weave T’nalak,” Lang Dulay
For me the Tboli are certainly the most diversely skilled textile artisans I have encountered on my travels. I am indeed in awe of their traditional dress and both bewildered and impressed that they only created such an inspiring visual identity a mere 60 years ago.
The fact that so many tourists are afraid to go there is a real detriment and threat to their economic and cultural survival. The T’nalak is reknown as the cultural emblem of the Tboli, but with out visitors could the weavers dreams and traditions be over as quick as it started? It is my hope that preservation of T’boli culture and craftsmanship is not only the regional pride of South Cotabato and Mindanao Island, but for the whole of the Philippines.
I am so glad I went to meet the Tboli tribe after all the drama surrounding their circumstances. Communities living on Lake Sebu live uncomplicated lives detached from the violence known in other provinces of Mindanao Island. One woman told me that the robbery at a local factory a few months previously (which resulted in a shoot out between the authorities and culprits) was nothing to do with the indiginous people of the area, but this one off event had dramatically effected tourism and thus the livelihoods of people living there.
I did not feel unsafe at any point on my visit to Lake Sebu. I drove around in blacked out jeep and was accompanied by 2 members from the department of tourism at all times. Would I go there as a solo female western backpacker?? Probably not, but I think hiring a tour guide and a vehicle for a few days is a feasible, sensible and safe solution for visiting the area and meeting the Tboli Tribe.
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Are you a weaver? Have you visited the Tboli tribe before or want to go? Do you know any other tribal groups in the Philippines? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.
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Due to recent civil conflict in the region it is advised that all tourists contact the Department of Tourism in advance to seek travel advice and recommendations. To visit the Tboli in Lake Sebu, please contact the Regional Director Nelly Dillera at email@example.com
The Yakan are a indigenous Muslim tribe native to the tropical island of Basilian. Located in the Sulu Archipelago in the most southern region of the Philippines, Yakan people are recognised for their remarkable technicolor geometric weaves and the distinctive face decorations used in their traditional ceremonies. The Yakan are kind and loving people that embody a non-materialistic culture and live in close-knit communities.
Back in the day Yakan women traditionally made textiles for their cultural dress (know as the Semmek), accessories and interiors from abaca, pineapple and bamboo fibers grown on the island. But in the 1970s Yakan people relocated from Basilian to Mindanao Island after political unrest and armed conflicts drove them away from their homeland. Since moving to Mindanao the natural textile designs have been replaced with vivid colored cottons resulting in a much more audacious aesthetic. Today Yakan people live peacefully in settlements predominately in Zamboanga City and earn their living from fishing, farming coconut and rubber, weaving and carpentry.
The decision to come to the Philippines was made when I realised that there was a limited amount of resources available online about Filipino tribes but substantial evidence that they still existed. At that point I contacted the Department of Tourism directly with a proposal to work together to bring these fascinating tribal cultures and their traditions to light. Mindanao Island especially appealed to me because so few western tourists travel there, let alone visit tribal settlements. Yakan culture particularly called to me due to their beautiful face decorations and bold geometric weaves. But the decision to visit Mindanao was not made lightly, with many official government websites declaring the island unsafe for tourists. I had to seek full reassurance for the department of tourism that my trip would be fully escorted and organised every day.
Yakan Wears (Semmek)
- Trousers – Yakan Sawal, striped trousers with zig zag and diamond repeat patterns made from bamboo fibers.
- Mens button up shirt – Badju Yakan designed to match the trousers.
- Head scarf – Yakan Pis, geometic intricate weave worn to cover the hair on a daily basis.
- Apron– Seputangan Teed has many different designs but is the most time consuming and decorative weave of the Semmek.
- Sash – Sakan Pinalantupan is made from a mix of Pineapple and bamboo fibers.
- Brides button up jacket – Pagal Bato is made from satin or cotton cloth and sometimes mixed with lurex threads.
- Brass buttons – Batawi, hand made and worn on the women’s jacket.
Face decoration – Tanyak Tanyak is a face painting custom is unique to Yakan tribal culture. Worn only for wedding ceremonies; circles, spots and diamond patterns are printed on the skin using bamboo implements and a thick mixture of white flour and water. The patterns are said to have no symbolic meaning but have been used for centuries as a form of cosmetic decoration long before commercial products were accessible.
In February 2016 I had the great honor of being invited to a Yakan village in Zamboagna city to watch a reenactment of a tribal wedding ceremony. Here you can see the traditional Semmek worn by both the bride and groom, live music, tribal war dance and the humorous customs of the Yakan people.
Yakan weaving uses bright, bold and often contrasting colours in big symmetrical patterns. Inspiration for designs comes from island living and Islamic sacred geometry.
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The Yakan people from the the village were so kind, conscientious and creative during my visit. The settlement had such spirit and the weavers were the pride of community. Speaking with store owner Angelita Pichay Ilul of Angie’s Yakan Cloth alongside the other female patrons of the tribe, I was able to interpret the immeasurable emphasis of how important weaving was to Yakan culture and their livelihood. With farming on the decline, climate change on the up and jobs in short supply, these women wrap on their back straps day in and day out weaving their wear’s to keep a roof over their head, traditions alive and a fractionalised community united. It is easy to see why their designs are seductive to both traditional and trend setting consumers, when the never ending variety of weaves are available in a wide range of products from backpacks to table runners. I think there’s room for a little Yakan spirit in everybody’s life’s.
Are you a weaver? Have you visited the Yakan tribe before or want to go? Do you know any other tribal groups in the Philippines? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.
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To buy Yakan Cloth please contact Angie’s Yakan Cloth on Facebook to place a order.
Due to recent civil conflict in the region it is advised that all tourists contact the Department of Tourism in advance to seek travel advice and recommendations. To book a to visit the Yakan Village in Zamboanga City please contact the regional director Mary Bugante at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi everyone I would like to introduce My, a Black Hmong girl living at ETHOS – Spirit of the Community with her mum, and Ker, a tour guide at Ethos specialising in hemp and indigo cultivation. These two lovely ladies will be our teachers today, explaining and demonstrating how Hmong people still grow, weave and dye hemp fabric and indigo for their clothes.
The aim of these video demonstrations is to create a understanding of Hmong heritage, traceability and to encourage the future production of Hmong organic fabrics and fashion.
With the vast majority of hill tribe minorities in Sapa formally uneducated and therefore unemployed I have put together a list of socially responsible and/or independent people and places to invest your precious cash and time with. I hope that this guide will give tourists more opportunity to make a conscious and caring choice when visiting Sapa.
Since ancient times Hmong people have used motifs and patterns to represent their daily life and culture on the designs of their textiles. No two jackets or skirts are the same as every garment is hand crafted to communicate a stage in the owners life.
The coach door opens, “Where you go?? Whats your name?? Where you from?? You buy from me?? Where you stay?? You remember me, ok?? Why you not buy from me?? You come my homestay?? I see you later?? You buy from me later??”
In August 2015 I set off on my own self initiated tribal textiles tour of Ha Giang Province in North Vietnam. Known as home to 70% of Vietnams 54 registered ethnic minority groups, Ha Giang promised to be a eyeopening and electic adventure for any textiles ethuasist.
The majority of people touring this province are either free-spirited motorbikers or nature loving tourist groups. I was on a mission to make contact, see and try and learn about traditional dress and textiles of the enigmatic people living in these remote areas.
The Red Dao hill tribe population of Sapa are one subdivision of Dao people living in the highlands of North Vietnam. Red Dao women are considered the most skilled embroiders of all hill tribes. Their scarlet drenched ensembles are sophisticated examples of hand stitched cultural symbology and showcase generations of dedication to sewn storytelling. The Red Dao wedding dress is seen as the summit of success in a women’s sewing accomplishments. Mother and daughter are known spend up to 1 year making nothing else but a brand new ceremonial outfit in preparation for the big day.
Bac Ha market is heavily populated with the colour clashing, pattern loving, bead encrusted, Flower Hmong hill tribe people of Vietnam. Women and girls of all ages are a sight of sore eyes sporting an almost psychedelic colour pallet of rainbow adorned cultural clothes that contrast against the drab concrete backdrop of the town. 2 1/2 hrs drive from Sapa makes Bac Ha market it a worthy destination for any textiles tourist traveling the Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces.
My ethnic travel adventures in the North of Vietnam unexpectedly introduced me to the Black Lolo hill tribe of Bao Lac. The Black Lolo (also know as the Lolo Den and Lolo Noir) reside high in the mountains surrounding the small town of Bao Lac in Cao Bang Province. The Black Lolo are identifiable by the black cultural clothes they wear from which their name derives. In August 2015 I motorbiked from Ha Giang to Bao Lac to research the cultural costume and textiles of some of the 54 ethnic minority groups that live in these rural areas. It was on this visit to the Lolo village that I began to question the ethics and responsibility of my research when visiting remote communities.
Dress by Lucy’s Dream
Want to skip the tourist traps and escape the city’s sweltering surge? Saigon has heaps of secret places to shop, amazing street art to see and an electric skyline to sip cocktails over in style. Throughout this post Haute Culture is going to introduce you to Saigon’s best kept secrets for a more sophisticated and savvy stay in Vietnam’s capital for commerce and contemporary culture.
Conscious Clothing – Sustainable Textiles – Grow Local – Wear Global
Thao Vu, winner of the British Fashion Councils Young Creative Entrepeneur Award is the aspirational visionary designer behind the contemporary conscious clothing brand Kilomet 109.
Established in 2012, Kilomet 109 specialises in seamlessly merging simple yet sophisticated european silhouettes, traditional ethnic details and endangered natural dyeing techniques to create her own sustainable textiles range. The range is practically grown from seed to seam as Thao also owns organic cotton, indigo and hemp plantations employing Nung minority women to weave the natural fibers into her latest collections.
Looking for awesome things to do in Hoi An? Let’s take a look at Haute Culture’s Top 10 highs and lows for you to make the most of your time here.
The ancient port town of Hoi An dates back to the 15th century and is home to an artistic architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese and French aesthetics. The pretty and peaceful town has both a traditional and cosmopolitan charm and is blessed with sun drenched streets most of the year round. Fashion lovers flock to Hoi An to take advantage of its long lineage of tailors famous for magically making made-to-measure clothes and shoes in just a few days.
With an array of beautiful beaches to bask on, romantic lantern lit streets to stroll along and arguably is Vietnam’s finest cuisine to dine on, scroll down to view my top 10.
Preserving the beautiful cultural traditions of Lô Lô ethnicity.
The Flower Lolo are the elaborately decorated ethnic minority people of Meo Vac, Vietnam. Their kaleidoscopic costumes are meticulously embellished with approximately 4000 hand appliquéd triangles resembling tetris block formations. Five triangles can take up to two hours to sew, I know because in August 2015 I motorbiked from Hanoi to Meo Vac to learn for myself. Constructing a single costume takes about one year to complete, outfits are sewn by mothers for their daughters, only worn on best occasions and stored in a lockable chest. For that reason the Flower Lolo‘s dress is publically revered as one of Vietnam’s finest sartorial accomplishments.
Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.
In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.
Disclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma. All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.
200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states. Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.
Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.
“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)
Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.