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The Weaving Sisters of Palawan

Weavers of Rurungan
Weavers of Rurungan | © Miko Lim
The Rurungan sa Tubod showroom in Palawan Island, Philippines, boasts a beautiful display of hand-woven garments. And as much as in style and quality, Rurungan’s products are rich in purpose and culture. Step inside the Rurungan workroom and meet the women responsible for breathing life into the craft of weaving on the island of Palawan.

Culture Trip walks into the showroom to be greeted with colourfully intricate weaves, some of pineapple silk, some of dyed cotton, in the forms of tops, dresses, and shawls – all ready to adorn a body, like paintings to a blank wall. Next door is the workroom, where seasoned craftswomen sit behind large wooden looms, creating these works of art, handling delicate threads, and making it all seem more effortless than it really is.

Vibrant apparel on display at the Rurungan showroom © Katrina Escalona

Travellers often find themselves wandering inside a knick-knack style souvenir shop of magnets and ‘I-heart’ T-shirts. It might even feel mandatory to buy a trinket or two when your trip is nearing its end. I myself have boxes of shot glasses branded by many a city from my travels. But what I value even more than this glass collection are my keepsakes with a piece of local culture inside – souvenirs with a story, mementos with a little more heart.

If you’re looking to take away something meaningful from your trip to Palawan, pay a visit to Rurungan sa Tubod. Along a quiet road just off the busy Puerto Princesa National Highway, nestled under the shade of scattered trees, this little showroom houses a collection of gorgeous original Palawan weaves. Upon entering, vibrant dresses and beach cover-ups quickly draw the eye to one side of the room – then glossy pineapple silk grabs your attention from the other. Every item seems to call you closer, invites you to feel the fabric, to marvel at the craftsmanship. Luckily for visitors, right next door is the workshop where the artisans behind these creations work their magic.

Rurungan's display of pineapple-silk apparel © Katrina Escalona

Big Sisters: Pillars of the community

Inside Rurungan sa Tubod’s workroom, I meet Ate Beth, who is by now a legend at the foundation after nearly two decades of service. She has watched Rurungan grow. She’s learned and weaved, and trained the other women who have come and gone. She is, perhaps, the ultimate Ate (big sister) in the workroom. Rosal Lim, daughter of Rurungan’s Executive Director Czarina Lim and now in charge of the organization’s product development arm, explains that the workshop runs on an ‘Ate system’.

The Ate does for the foundation’s newer weavers, what an Ate does for the Filipino family. She teaches her ‘little sisters’. In Rurungan, the Ate shows the newer weavers the ropes – or quite literally the threads – around the loom. She takes them under her wing and passes the knowledge down.

Cotton threads set on the loom © Katrina Escalona

“Whenever we open a weaving centre in a particular community, we spend a lot of time with them to see who can be the ‘Ate’ — the woman who the other weavers respect the most,” explains Rosal. “You have to train her to teach the other weavers. You always need an ‘Ate system’, as one weaver can only achieve so much.”

This is how Rurungan’s 20-year-old community has come to grow — through women all around the island, teaching each other, forming smaller weaving communities and introducing the craft to others in search of a means to support their own families. In fact, a commitment to women empowerment is one of the foundation’s driving forces. Today, they have a total of 22 weavers, with five weaving from the centre and the rest from their individual communities in different parts of the province.

A Rurungan weaver behind the loom © Katrina Escalona

Rurungan has provided an alternative livelihood for women who support their families not only financially, but also by having a job that allows them to work from home.

Rosal explains it is not uncommon for their weavers to go through training and then decide to have their husbands replicate the loom so they can work from their houses. Mothers are then also able to look after their younger children, all while making a living.

Ate Marissa is one of Rurungan's master weavers © Katrina Escalona

I watch another master weaver, Ate Marissa, as she works behind the loom. She proudly shares that weaving has allowed her to take care of her children as kids, and support their education as they grow older. A thread goes loose on the loom and she hops right up to knot it back into her steady groove. What to me seems like such a complex craft and complicated process, appears almost second nature to her.

Ate Marissa fixing the threads on her loom © Katrina Escalona

An archipelago of weavers

The Philippines’ weaving culture is incredibly rich and diverse, varying in patterns, materials and techniques across the many indigenous groups in the archipelago. From the mountains of Kalinga all the way down to the islands of Sulu, the tradition of weaving is a beautiful manifestation of these communities’ histories, beliefs and identities.

Mindanao alone is home to several weaving communities including the Tausug, Mandaya and Bagobo. But perhaps the best-known are the ‘dream weavers’ of the T’boli, who weave their t’nalak fabrics guided by their dreams. They believe the guardian spirit of Fu Dalu visits them as they sleep, delivering weaving patterns through their dreams. They then weave the t’nalak, following the pattern from memory. The spiritual roots of this material is why the t’nalak, as well as its creation process, is regarded as sacred to the T’Boli.

It is not uncommon for ethnic groups to have their own sacred weaves. “Sagada for example thrives on their weaving,” says Rosal. “They sell wallets, bags, and everything. But they keep their sacred weaves sacred. So they have weaves that they are allowed to sell and weaves that they keep to themselves.”

These ethnic communities pass down the tradition of weaving from one generation to the next, sadly a dwindling practice in today’s modern age, with the younger generation’s waning interest in learning the craft. But craft communities like Rurungan help to keep the artistry alive, sharing the knowledge with anyone willing to learn.

Unlike many other provinces around the Philippines, Palawan doesn’t particularly thrive on a textile industry from generations of weavers. But Rurungan has managed to make a tradition of its own, introducing contemporary weaves to the scene, distinctly crafted on the island.

Woven apparel showcasing Rurungan's contemporary style © Katrina Escalona

“The thing is, we’re a craft community,” explains Rosal. “Weaving isn’t something our weavers learned from their lolas (grandmothers). We introduced it to them. Because as long as someone wants to learn, we’ll still teach.”

Learning from plant to textile

Rurungan’s eight-month training program is extensive in that it navigates weavers through every stage of the weaving process – from harvesting the resources, through knotting, to actual weaving behind the loom. A truly hands-on production process from plant to textile. And during these months, they buy back the trainee’s work, no matter how novice, as incentive for the time they spend mastering the craft.

Inside the Rurungan workroom © Katrina Escalona

Today, they are looking for ways to gather the funding to carry out the training program on a larger scale, as demand for both their products and weaving know-how rises. But in the meantime, Rosal says the Ate system lends a big hand.

“They train each other, which is really good,” she says. “The team I have for production were the first ones that trained with us – and now they’re the trainers.

“We now have master weavers that know how to teach people how to weave. And that’s why I’m looking for funding, because the market is growing and people want to learn.”

Despite rapid growth and modernization that the city of Puerto Princesa has undergone since the foundation’s beginnings, Rosal says there are still people who are interested in the traditional craft.

“Puerto [Princesa] was so small before,” she reminisces. “You didn’t have to go far to find people who wanted to do this. But now that you’re competing with hotels, job opportunities that seem more legitimate, who are you to stand in that way, right?

“But then there are people who like the quiet life, who like to stay in the outskirts that we can still tap into and train. That’s our mandate: to give you a skill you can earn money from at any point in your life.”

When I ask Rosal if she ever worries about the possibility of weavers leaving the foundation and deciding to work independently after their training, she says no. The entire process is so long and complex that it would be difficult to make a living doing it all alone.

“There’s a team that will think about the weaving, and there’s a team that will execute,” she says. “It’s a whole organization. And in order to survive, we need each other.”

Weavers of Rurungan © Miko Lim

Distinctly Rurungan

In addition to women empowerment, Rurungan’s production is grounded on sustainability. As they sought easy, renewable and local materials, they found abaca and pineapple. “We knew that there was a lot of wild pineapple in Puerto that grow really well in the forests on their own,” shares Rosal. “So these are the materials that we really worked on developing as a product.”

Shawls in the Rurungan showroom © Katrina Escalona

Many communities in Palawan weave baskets and placemats, but weaving fabric is more common to other ethnolinguistic groups around the Philippines. This is why when Rurungan began developing the craft of weaving textiles in Palawan, they were cautious to make it their own.

“We are so careful with making sure that our weaves are distinct and do not look like something from Ilocos for example,” says Rosal. “We really focused on product development because we didn’t [want people comparing weaves, saying this one is better than that].

“That’s why all our weaves are contemporary. Only the technique was transferred. We made something that we were good at. Our weaves are colourful, they’re tighter. That’s distinctly ‘Rurungan’.”

Distinctly Rurungan © Katrina Escalona

Though not visible at a glance, another certain mark of a ‘distinctly Rurungan’ product is the good it does for its community. Because tightly woven into each garment’s fibres are the pride and hardwork of its weaver, the commitment of the Ate that guided her, and the stories of little victories of their own families and communities made possible by weaving.

“Many of our weavers started when we opened and they’re still here to this day,” says Rosal. “So Rurungan is theirs. This is something they built with us.”

[Quotes in Filipino were translated to English by the writer]