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 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 (although diminishing) T'boli tribe members who keep to the old traditions and crafts, keeping the cultural significance of year's old craftsmanship alive.
T'nalak production is a labor intensive process requiring a knowledge of a range of skills learned from a young age by the women of the tribe. First, abaca fiber is stripped from the abaca tree, cleaned, dried and separated into strands. These strands are then carefully selected, hand tied and rolled into balls.
Once fibers are dry they are then laid out on a simple wooden loom. The abaca fibers are stretched out on the loom, then tied with other fibers rubbed in beeswax, the beeswax creates a barrier for the dye to only penetrate certain fiber strains.
The pigment of the materials are naturally dyed and boiled with bark, roots and leaves of plants produced by the T'boli weavers themselves. After the dyed fibers are dried, which takes weeks at a time, it goes through the technique called lemubag (wood pounding) where the fibers are made flexible and pliant.
For the final touch, the T'Nalak is laid out on a bamboo fixture where it finally passes through the 'smaki' (shell rubbing), a method of bringing out the luster of the finished cloth. T'boli craftswomen use the saki, a big turtle-shaped sea shell for this purpose. The 'smaki' (saki shell-rubbing process) brings out the waxy sheen of the cloth.
It is a heritage and believed that the intricate and creative patterns of the T'Nalak were seen in their dreams and made it on to the work. They can't create a design of the T'Nalak if they haven't dreamt of it. That's why they are called the "Dream Weavers".
In a culture that didn't have a form of writing, the T'Nalak served as both literature and art. The T'bolis expressed everything they are in the T'Nalak; their dreams, beliefs, myths and even their religion. The process also involves cultural philosophies; One should not step over a weaving in progress, and doing so is to risk illness or cutting the cloth will cause sickness or death, unless done according to traditions. It is present in significant points in the T'boli life, such as birth, marriage and death. It is the medium which sanctifies these rites, encircling them in the length of its fabric like a blessing.