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June 01, 2004

MARICRIS JAN TOBIAS

Lake Sebu, South Cotabato – Using abaca fibers as fine as hair, Lang Dulay speaks more eloquently than words can. Images from the distant past of her people, the Tbolis, are recreated by her nimble hands – the crocodiles, butterflies and flowers, along with mountains and streams, of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, where she and her ancestors were born – fill the fabric with her longing to be remembered. Through her weaving, Lang Dulay does what she can to keep her people’s tradition alive.

                There are a few of them left, the traditional weavers of the tnalak or Tboli cloth. It is not hard to see why: weaving tnalak is a tedious process that begins with stripping the stem of the abaca plant to get the Fibers, to coaxing even finer fibers for the textile, then drying the threads and tying each strands by hand. Afterwards, there is the delicate task of setting the strands on the “bed-tying” frame made of bamboo, with an eye towards deciding which strands should be tied to resist the dye. It is the bud or trying of the abaca fibers that defines the design.

                A roll of tnalak must be individually set on a back strap loom, so called because of the broad band the weaver sets against her back to provide tension to the work. There is great strain on the weaver’s back and eyes, particularly since Tboli women are required to help out in the fields to augment the family income. It is only after the frame is done that the weaver can sit down to her designs. Also, due to the peculiarity of the fiber, of its getting brittle under the noon day sun, working on it is preferred the cool evenings or early morn.

                Lang Dulay knows a hundred designs, including the bulinglangit (clouds), the bankiring (hair bangs), and the kabingi (butterfly), each one special for the storied it tells. Using red and black dyes, she spins her stories with grace. Her textiles reflect the wisdom and the visions of her people.

                Before the 1960s, the Tboli bartered tnalak for horses, which played an important role in their work. Upon the establishment of Sta. Cruz Mission, which encouraged the community to weave and provided them with a means to market their produce, the Tnalak designs gained widespread popularity and enable weavers like Lang to earn a steady income from their art. However, the demand also resulted in the commercialization of the tnalak industry, with outsiders coming in to impose their own designs on the Tboli weavers.

                Ironically modern designs get a better price than the traditional ones. Despite this, and the fact that those modern designs are easier to weave, Lang persists in doing thing the old, if harder, way, to give voice, in effect, to the songs that were her elders’ before her. Her textiles are judged excellent because of the “fine even quality of the yarn, the close interweaving of the warp and weft, the precision in the forms and patterns, the chromatic integrity of the dye, and the consistency of the finish”.

                She was only 12 when she first learn how to weave. Through the years, she has dreamed that, someday she could pass on her talent and skills to young in her community. Four of her grandchildren have themselves picked up the shuttle and are learning to weave.

                With the art comes certain taboos that Tboli weavers are careful to observe, such as passing abaca thread all over the body before weaving so as not to get sick. Lang Dulay never washes the tnalak with soap, and avoids using soap when she is dyeing the threads in order to maintain the pureness of the abaca.

                Upon learning that she was being considered to be one of the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan awardees, tears of joy fell from her eyes. She thought of the school that she wanted to build, a school where the women of her community could go to perfect their art.