Indigenous Filipino Fabrics Are Making a Comeback

Know our traditional woven fabrics, so you don't accidentally wear a sacred death blanket.
IMAGE Odyssea: Nature, Culture, People (

Filipino textiles are experiencing something of a resurgence. As of late, entrepreneurs and designers have been incorporating them in everything from bags and laptop cases to shirts, skirts, and even gowns. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of ethnic fabrics—all you have to do is look at this photo album by Odyssea, an organization that aims to preserve culture and the environment, to appreciate Mindanao ethnic groups’ intricate and colorful weaving designs.

The album places different tribes’ traditional weaving patterns side by side to showcase unity in diversity. Even though each group has its own distinct style, there are striking similarities as well, and each design is testament to these groups’ rich colorful heritage.

For example, as explained by Vela Manila (a local accessory brand that aims to promote Filipino heritage), the Yakan tribe’s designs are inspired by the natural landscape surrounding Lamitan, Basilan. Their fabrics are characterized by geometric patterns and vivid hues, and are made from “pineapple and abaca fibers dyed with herbal extracts.” The entire process is so labor-intensive that it can take a week to weave just one meter of fabric.


The T’boli of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato make their fabrics from abaca as well. They believe that their designs and patterns have been passed down to them by their ancestors through dreams. They’re well known for their t’nalak cloth, which, according to Senator Loren Legarda, is “used during significant occasions like birth, marriage, and death; the hilets, or belts with brass small bells, are believed to drive away bad spirits; while the embroidery they use to accentuate their traditional blouses narrate the story of their relationship with nature and the spirits.”

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While most Manileños are probably familiar with the malongs of Maguindanao, few are likely to have encountered the silk malongs used by Maguindanaons during special events like babies’ hair cutting ceremonies, weddings, and circumcision rituals. As Lourdes Veloso Mastura explains in her article Textiles of Maguindanao:

“the [circumcised] boy of 12 is king for a day. Dressed in a silk malong, he is paraded around the village early in the day. When he arrives home he sits on a silk malong or has a silk malong stretched like a curtain against the wall where he is lying.”

Apart from material, the color of textiles can hold significance as well. For the Maranao, yellow is associated with royalty and high status. As Abdullah T. Madale writes in Textiles in the Maranao Torogan, “A man who wears a yellow shirt and cap is called bananing i ulo ("yellow headed"). In the past a commoner who wore yellow could be ostracized or even beheaded.” Madale goes on to explain that Maranaos who want to “appear at once humble and accomplished” would wear green, which stands for “peace, tranquility and stability.” Red stands for “bravery and violence,” white for mourning, and black for “quiet dignity and purity.”


With all the hidden meaning that a woven piece of cloth could hold, cultural appropriation has become something of a concern. The last thing you want is to find out that the bolt of fabric you’ve been using as a cool bed cover is actually an Ifugao death blanket. Not only is it creepy, it’s pretty disrespectful to the Ifugao, who consider them sacred but may have to sell whatever they can to make a living. Apart from doing your own research, another way to avoid this kind of mishap is to patronize brands who understand which patterns are and aren’t sacred and who buy textiles from indigenous groups at fair prices.

Thankfully, HABI: The Philippine Textile Council has done all that work for us with their Likhang Habi Market Fair, where you can buy some unique handcrafted items and watch demonstrations from master weavers like Myrna Puli of the T’boli. This year’s fair will take place from October 20 to 22 at the Glorietta Activity Center in Makati. It’s a great opportunity to support our local ethnic groups, learn about our national cultural heritage, and get some Christmas shopping out of the way.



Mastura, Lourdes Veloso. (2013) “Textiles of Maguindanao”. In Guatlo, Rene. Habi: A Journey Through Philippines Handwoven Textiles. Philippine Textile Council.

Madale, Abdulla T. (1998). “Textiles in the Maranao Torogan”. In Hamilton, Roy. From the Rainbow’s Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines. UCLA.

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Angelica Gutierrez
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