In a remote rural region of the southern Philippine islands, there is a place called Lake Sebu in the province of South Cotabato, on the island of Mindanao. Lake Sebu is home to a tribe of people known as the T'boli people. Many of the women (and some men) from this tribe are impoverished, yet skilled artists and master weavers toiling away at the dying art of T'nalak weaving.
As more of the younger generation abandon the old crafts in favor of modern culture and opportunities, there are still a number (albeit diminishing) T'boli tribe members who keep to the old traditions and crafts, hence keeping the cultural significance of year's old craftsmanship alive.
T'nalak fabric is a product of a unique and tedious method of tie-dye weaving done on a bamboo and wooden loom.
The cloth is hand-woven and made of Abaca fibers from the Abaca plant (also referred to as Manila hemp). The abaca plant belongs to the banana family. It was a major source of high quality fiber long before synthetic fabrics became available.
First, the fibers are stripped by hand from the plant. They are then combed repeatedly with weeks of air-drying. The fibers are stretched on a bamboo wooden loom, tied with other fibers and rubbed in beeswax.
Next, the fibers will be dyed. The three primary colors used are black, red, and the original color of the Abaca leaves. Black dye comes from the leaves of the Kenalum tree. Black color takes three weeks. Red dye comes from the roots of the loco tree and takes two days. The fibers are boiled over and over and steam pushes the dye upwards to the tied threads.
After the dyeing is finished, the fibers are removed and washed along river banks. The cloth is then air dried for a week. The fabric then goes through a technique called lemubag (wood pounding) where the fibers are made flexible and pliant.
Finally, the T'nalak is laid out on a bamboo fixture where it passes through the "smaki" (shell rubbing). The craftswoman will use a big turtle-shaped seashell called a saki for this. This brings out the luster and waxy sheen of the finished cloth.
The T'nalak is an extremely valuable hand woven fabric and made not only for the exceptional quality and durfability of the fabric (which will never fade if well taken care of) but also for the enormous amount of spiritual and emotional energy instilled into the creation of the final weave.
This unique and beautiful fabric has symbolic meaning attached to the various patterns and stylistic designs. Many of the patterns are said to be divinely inspired, but most of those appearing have come from the creators own dreams and traditional ancestral forms. It can take up to 5 years of constant practice and the ability to remember and interpret dreams to earn the title of Master Weaver or "Dream Weaver." These expert weavers do not use any kind of drawn pattern, template or guide. Instead, they rely on mental images which appear to them through past exposure to traditional and mythological design, dreams or vision.
A length of T'nalak fabric 20 feet (usually 15 to 17 inches wide long will take about two and a half months to complete. Some pieces can take up to four months requiring the help of several members of the village to complete the laborious and time consuming process. Artistic, spiritual thought and dedication to the past is mandatory.
Much superstition surrounds the T'nalak. The T'boli tribe members believe that cutting the divine dream inspired fabric will cause them to become ill. Bells are often attached to the cloth by merchants who wish to please the mysterious spirits who guided the weavers.
The T'nalak is used by the T'boli people for special occasions and major life events such as birth, marriage, and death. They have no form of writing and the T'nalak is used to express art, literature, dreams, beliefs, myths, legends and religion. Other neighboring tribes recognize the T'nalak fabric as being unique only to the T'boli culture alone.