Oral accounts of garment weaving dates back before the 1900s with the use of dried grasses, rattan or bamboo strips made into baskets, rice/grain dispensers (camowan), kitchen serving trays (bitoto), winnowers (bilao), and load carriers (labba, gimata).
With the people’s innate indigenous knowledge of weaving and designing that reflects their lifestyle, they made use of dried grasses, banana stalks, and other fibrous plants that they could get within their environment and weave them into fishnets.
As the weaving developed, people started to learn how to de-fiber wild fibrous plants by soaking them in rice fields for a number of days. The fibers were then twined into ropes, braided or woven into coarse garments for hats, belts or other containers that they can fold and unfold, roll or unroll.
One of these fibrous plants is the kapok tree which produces soft fiber inside the seeds, and eventually twined into thread.
In the early 1920s when there was scarce food, barter trade was popular where the Igorots of the old Mountain Province bartered any product like their woodcraft (mortar and pestle, feeding troughs), and bamboo craft products in exchange for food.
As in the case of the Besao, Tadian, and Bauko people, they bartered their honing stone (palidan) for salt in Candon, Ilocos Sur passing through Cervantes. The Bauko people specifically Bila, bartered their clay pots for dried animal skin. It was in this bartering that the Igorots saw the kapok trees made into pillows among the Ilocanos.
These Igorots got some dried kapok seeds, popped out the soft kapok fibers inside the seed and made them into pillows, then later they twined them into thread. The twined thread was later starched with rice starch to avoid thread adhesion during weaving.
Backstrap weaving then came about.
Backstrap weaving is an indigenous technology where the weaver with a back support made of bark of trees or animal skin is strapped to the weaver’s back while seated with her stretched feet supported by a log.
Backstrap weaving is put in place when warping takes place. The warper ties the end of first thread to the warping rod and brings it to the weaver who puts over
or under the roller in front of her. The roller (leletan) is anchored to the back support.
The heddles (tubongan) and threadles (goonan) are now placed during the warping to create the designs. As the weaver does the weaving, she strides forward and backward fully supported front and back. It is the warped thread and the seated weaver that connects all weaving gadgets together.
Backstrapping involves thread twining, dyeing and winding. After the raw kapok fiber is twined (linas), it is winded in a bamboo winder (ollawan), then dyed and starched to make it stiff enough for warping and to avoid thread to thread adhesion during weaving. After starching, the thread is winded into balls.
It also involves warping, heddling and threadling.
With the use of bamboo as rod (sah-udan), it is securely tied in an elevated place one to two meters high. The weaver is also seated securely with her back and front support gadgets 3 to 5 meters facing the warping rod. The back support is anchored to the roller (leletan) pressed in front of the seated weaver.
The warping starts with the end of the thread tied to the warping rod then the warper unwinds the thread to the weaver who anchors it to the roller (leletan). Warping (sah-ud) is manually done as the warper repeatedly walks to unwind the balls of thread from the warping rod to the weaver and back. The weaver threadles (isikwit or igol-on) and heddles (ipili) the thread alternately depending on the design she likes to create. The process is done for about 2 to 3 hours until the desired width is attained.
The design in the weaving is dependent on the threading during the warping. Complicated jackard designs (sinikwit) that produce icons or figures require more stick threadles.
In the actual weaving, the feeder as woof (pakan) should have been winded in a shuttle (sikwan). As the shuttle is thrown, the woof crosses the warp, and the reed (balliga) is immediately pushed twice to make an even and smooth woven material.
To avoid thread to thread adhesion in the process of weaving, bees wax is rubbed to the warped thread from time to time to allow the easy movement of the threadled and heddled warped thread.
The development of backstrap weaving in terms of designs and colors is evident among the different periods and the tribes of the wearer. To a certain degree it also reflects the tribe’s lifestyle.
An interview with an 86-yr old woman weaver from Besao in 1969, claimed that the first backstrap weaving in the early 1920s was in Banao, Bauko with the use of cotton thread brought by a certain couple Calinggan and Colas from Candon, Ilocos Sur. Weaving was then plain (inesa) with stripes of blue-black color since blue was the only available dye they can make. The dark blue thread with white stripes was woven into tapis.
It did not take long when the Besao folks who are neighbors of Ilocos Sur hiked to reach Ilocos Sur to get rolled cotton thread (sinamlaw) from a certain Calaycay from Candon, Ilocos Sur. This time, red-dyed cotton thread was available. The red-dyed cotton thread was first woven into a red and white stripe tapis (pinnagi) and a blanket (binintal) used by a mother to carry her baby at her back while she works.
In the 1930s, weaving spread in other municipalities in western Mountain Province. In the 1940s, the mercerized thread was available that gave way to the use of other colors aside from red, black, and white. This time, yellow and green were used to create more designs that are multicolored.
Of the kinds of weaving, the twill weave, herringbone, and jackard weave (sinikwit, sinalibubu) were popularized. With the cotton thread or mercerized thread in different colors, the different designs were made as attractions in the edges of g-strings for men, tapis for women, and bedspreads/ blankets used during rituals or special occasions.
All these woven materials were considered things of value and were preciously kept as inheritance for children who get married. The designs have meanings like the figure of the man, spear and the snake. It is sequenced in such a way that designs mean, the man is protected by the spear from any evil represented by the snake.
Likewise, there were specific designs to reflect the status symbol of the wearer. This is especially among the woven materials worn by the dead. The ikat design with the figure of the man is worn by the dead from a rich clan (kadangyan) in terms of ownership of land and valuables. The plainly woven white with stripes of black in the edges (lamma) is for the poor.
In the late 1950s, other synthetic thread like acrylic vonnel, wool, silk came in abundance in the market in addition to the mercerized thread. This made weaving home industry popular including other provinces especially Mountain Province and Ifugao. At this time, cotton thread was little by little getting out of use by the Igorots because of its scantiness. Out of this fairly available thread and mercerized thread and the very much abundant synthetic thread, other colorful designs were made.
Aside from flowery or geometric designs, letterings were made part of the designs, which were surprisingly done even by an illiterate weaver so long as the letters were in correct prints. The letterings are placed conspicuously at the middle dominant white centerpiece (pagawa) of the tapis or blanket. The pagawa provides symmetry and balance to the attire.
When weaving was commercialized, the use of backstrap weaving was overtaken by the use of the Ilocano loom weaving. In terms of color combinations and designs, Kalinga, Ifugao, Benguet and Mountain Province maintained in their textile-woven costumes the dominant red, stripes of black and very minimal stripes of white.
In the case of Abra and Apayao as to their traditional costumes, they adopted the materials woven by the early weaving industries of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte. What was added to make it native of their provinces is the attractive hand embroidery made in their costumes.
Among the Isnags in Apayao are the strings of beads made in the head cover (abungot or binangkir), the badiyo (short-waisted long-sleeved blouse), a cloth girdle (bugahat), and the tapis (aken).
The fineness of the embroidery reflects the fineness and humility of the woman who embroidered the material. Peculiar of the natives of Abra is the figure of a horse embroidered in their costume. This depicts the Abra people who were known for their speedy, strong, enduring horses, the qualities of people in their bid for growth and development.
Other multi-colored designs today are products of the Ilocano loom weaving adopted by the Igorots. The Igorots see the use of loom weaving in commercial production of rolls of cloth sewed into other products like bags, jackets, shoes, purse, table or seat covers, curtains. In loom weaving the width could be very wide or just strips which could not be done in backstrap weaving which is limited to what the hand of a single weaver can reach. As to the length, in loom weaving, one set of warping can produce 10 to 30 meters or a little more. In backstrap weaving, the maximum would be 10 meters long.
The weaving industry in Cordillera was popularized by the Lepanto Crafts in Benguet, Narda’s Enterprises, Easter Weaving, Sagada Weaving, Sabangan Weaving, and the Tam-aw weaving in Ifugao.
The cottage industries existing today maintain the backstrap weaving only for its culturally specified purpose on the use of the woven material and the loom weaving for its mass production for commercial purposes.
In the process of commercialization, other color combinations to include all primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, were used which we now see in most Igorot-woven products worth noting that Abra and Apayao maintained their originality in terms of colors and designs on their traditional costumes.
The garments woven in backstrap weaving include the attire for the dead. The plain topper of white with black stripe is for the dead identified with poor descendants even if he/she is considered rich at present. Likewise, the ikat design or the headband with jackard designs of icons, circles, stars, etc., is worn by the dead identified with rich descendants (baknang) even if he died a rich man today.
Among the Igorots in Mountain Province, the common designs of their woven garments whether woven by backstrap or loom are: pinagpagan, kuabaw, kulibangbang, pinnagi, binuldaan, innigidan, and lamma.
Not just weaving
In the process of winding, warping, weavers discuss issues, joke with one another, eat together and become spiritually beautiful as they learn to appreciate or recognize one another. Weaving in the early times was not considered work but a form of recreation. It is done when the rice planting or harvesting was just over and to take a break from the fieldwork, backstrap weaving takes its time.
In western Mountain Province, the fineness or smoothness of the weaving gadgets reflects the concern and how responsible the husband is. The finer and smoother the gadgets, the more concerned and responsible the husband is. Hence, husbands during the earlier period of backstrap weaving compete in providing their wife-weavers the best kind of weaving gadget. Likewise, the finer and creatively-designed the husband’s G-string is, the more concerned the wife is.
It was also revealed that a conscientious mother should always keep any woven garment with beads to be given as inheritance to her child who gets married. This inheritance is handed during the traditional wedding ceremony.
To the children, having inherited any woven garment from parents is a pride and honor and gives the feeling of being blessed. So, no matter how old the woven garment is, it is very much treasured.
More so, backstrap weaving does not need a wide area and because of the parts that are only assembled upon actual weaving, it can be carried anywhere as the weaver goes to any place. Since it is handy, two weavers can decide to do the weaving under a tree where others can just come and socialize with them. Any passerby who likes to stop would help in entangling any entangled thread or would do any errand for the tied weaver.
The parts are lasting and do not need difficulty in maintaining because these are made of wood, sticks, bamboos and rattan so they do not corrode to form rust.
Backstrap weaving is a living tradition in promoting Igorot values of cooperation, solidarity, teamwork, cohesiveness and creativity.
Likewise, the designs and colors reflect such ethnic life ways. So long as the Igorots would continue appreciating their culture, the backstrap weaving should be strengthened.
The author is a former trainer on backstrap weaving to the Christian Children’s Fund-Mt. Province (1970-1975). She was also awarded “Best in Weaving” by the then Mountain Agricultural College (1967- 68). The above article was presented during the International Igorot Consultation (IIC-5) held at St. Louis, Missouri, July 1-4, 2004.
N.B. The above article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Lang-ay Magazine published by the provincial government of Mountain Province in cooperation with the association of Provincial Executives (APEX). On 17 November 2013, Dr. Caridad Bomas-ang Fiar-od passed away due to a lingering illness. Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE) would like to thank Dr. Joy Fiar-od Dicdican, Xaverine Fiar-od and their other siblings for granting permission to post their mother’s article in the ICBE website. (25 June 2014, Y. Belen)