Kalinga is both a tribal community and a land locked province in the heart of the Cordillera Region, North Luzon, the Philippines. Until recently Kalinga people could be identified from a distance by their distinctive body art. Immersed in the magnificent mountains and cut off from modern society, Kalinga people lived modest but passionate lives in a world where your skin communicated your social status to the local community.
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
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 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.
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.
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.