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May 19, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

Largely responsible for calling attention to the near demise of the piña weaving industry in the country, and considered as the “Grand Dame of Philippine Fashion,” Tesoro now finds herself in a community espousing an organic lifestyle.
“The first great gift we can bestow on others is a good example.”
-Morell

 

Picture a house in a 3,500 square meter organically-grown lanzones grove, and a freshwater stream softly gurgling behind. This is Patis Tesoro’s San Pablo, Laguna hideaway.

Initially, the house, bought in 1987, strikes one as a good ol’ Bali home right in the middle of a storyland garden. Tesoro counters this, saying that it is a typical Filipino house. It is an expansive two-floor house, “with a silong, your typical bahay-kubo” she volunteers, and begins to explain how the house was constructed without the aid of a blueprint (“But, of course, I did have a plan in my head.”), of how it was a product of her collection of “scraps” of old houses over the years. “These were parts of old houses that were being destroyed in the provinces. I have saved what I can of such houses.”

It gets more intriguing inside. Visitors are at once greeted by the colorfully-dressed and now-popular Nina dolls It is a very open house, with the windows open to the wind passing through the various parts of the garden. “You know, Filipinos have no sense of privacy. We still carry it in our psyche.” There are not much partition, calling to mind Filipino ancestral houses where one room leads to another space and so on.

The “silong” is transformed into a dining room where a long narra table is found. There is also the “batalan” style of sink where the plates and glasses are washed. Adjacent to the dining room is what one could call an “after meal room” where people can just relax, seat themselves comfortably as the cool breeze fan them to a siesta perhaps.

The entire floor upstairs is made of bamboo slats, which becomes a receiving area for people. “I had to replace most of it ever so often as they are very susceptible to bukbok,” confessed Patis. But, for this writer, the cool comfort the bamboo floor provides to one’s tired feet is definitely worth every replacement of each slat. What immediately greets one upstairs are the two “papag” types which offers an irresistible invitation to lie down and chat away the afternoon until one falls into a heavenly stupor. One can choose that or do a Cleopatra pose in a beautiful Filipino-Spanish wooden chaise adorned with white linen drapery. Tesoro confirms this writer’s observation that the air is expectedly cooler in the evenings. “At night, you can even smell the champaca,” she says.

Pagsanjan native and mother of four, Tesoro’s admits to the house being her “really hideaway”. “I don’t want the rat race of urban living. I like it here where it is quiet.”

Organic Lifestyle

In April of this year (2003), her enclave became a venue for the very first Organic Garden Fair in San Pablo. A portion of it was dressed up in colorful hammocks, tables, artfully-designed booths of coconut fiber and bamboo. On sale, arrayed on old-style papag, were Laguna handicrafts and delicacies as well as home décor, jewelry, and handmade paper products.

Tesoro readily gave her full support to the affair, seeing it as a “simple, enjoyable and fruitful way of going back to nature,” of promoting the organic lifestyle as a strategy  for healthy living. “’Organic’ is a lifestyle here in Laguna”, says Tesoro, “Everyone has a cause here.”

Held between April 26 and 27 at Barangay Sta. Cruz (Putol), the Organic Garden Fair was organized by the San Pablo City chapter of the Organic Producers Trade Association (OPTA), of which Tesoro is an active member.

Participating exhibitors totalled to 40 belying the notion that there is no place for organic food in the market. They ranged from organic farmers and nursery owners, to handicrafts manufacturers, restaurateurs and home-décor retailers. Agruptek Co. demonstrated to the public their invented machine designed for solid waste management,  Cervante’s Technology, Inc. showed how to raise organic tilapia in a canvas bag, Ato Belen’s Fruit Farm brought in the season’s harvest, Ticzon Herbal Products their God-sent remedies, while Ed de la Cruz’ Collete’s, Liliw Products and Orencia’s sold their buko pies, Liliw slippers, and uraro cookies respectively. The Kiwanis Club also showcased six varieties of bamboo for home decoration. The highlight of the garden fair was a lecture by Mandy Marino of Samahan ng Pitong Lawa on saving and reviving San Pablo’s seven lakes.

“It really is just a simple, enjoyable and fruitful way of going back to nature, of promoting the organic lifestyle as a strategy  for healthy living, explains Patis.

Patis and Piña

Tesoro has always been inspired by her local heritage. She has always designed her ready-to-wear and couture line, using mostly local materials such as Ilocos Abel, Abaca, Tiniri, Mindanao Silk, and piña.

But before the Philippine elites begun donning her now famous piña terno and barong, Tesoro had to go to Visayas herself in 1986 to see why the country had ceased producing piña fabrics. She found only a handful of part-time piña weavers-–most of them women in their late 80s. She knew early on that piña was going to die with these women unless something was done. “Piña weaving is not as simple as it seems,”  says Tesoro. Piña is such a delicate fiber, that too much pressure applied on it during weaving could break as many as 10 strands. Weavers then have to trace the broken fibers and knot them together. The tedious process involved explains why a weaver can produce only 25 centimeters of cloth per day.

Introduced during the Spanish era, piña weaving grew into one of the main household industries of the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, a census in 1903 estimated that almost one-fifth of the country’s population were once weavers and spinners. In the island of Panay alone, which was the base of piña cloth production, each family had at least one bamboo hand weaving loom. With the popularization of Western fashion, which also introduced cotton and other cheaper and more practical fabrics, the demand for piña and other Philippine textiles declined.

“I specially learned how its revival was intertwined with tradition and how it couldn’t succeed without community participation,” emphasizes Tesoro.

Tesoro, soon began the arduous task of lobbying for local officials to set up courses to train the next generation of weavers. The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to Tesoro, there are now courses on piña weaving at the Aklan State College of Agriculture in the Visayas. Aklan, too, has become the center of the piña industry in the country.

Tesoro had, in fact, been recognized by the Reader’s Digest (English Asia Edition) in September 2002, as one of Asia’s “Everyday Superheroes” because of her efforts and concern for the industry of piña cloth weaving, which now enables the country to produce 100,000 meters of piña fiber every year.

A part of that long effort was when Tesoro and then first lady Ramos put on a major show at the Paris Fair of May 1997 to promote traditional Philippine fibers to the world’s top fashion houses. It caught the attention of New York-based Filipino-American designer Josie Natori who is now experimenting with piña.

Past administrations had not been remiss either in promoting piña. Marcos issued a decree ordering government employees to wear barong tagalog to work. Former first lady Imelda Marcos wore gowns made of exquisitely woven piña in her frequent travels as special ambassador. Corazon Aquino, for her part, gave out loans for pineapple planting and the training of piña weavers in Aklan. Fidel Ramos, promoted the fabric by providing then U.S.President Bill Clinton and 17 other leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation with barong tagalog during the APEC Leaders Summit held in the Philippines in 1996.

Tesoro admits though that there is still a  lot to be done about the industry. “There is still the growing fear that piña cotton will finally be replaced by piña silk (seda) and piña rayon because mixed fiber are cheaper and requires less labor.”

Admittedly, the sale of piña seda has risen from 8,500 meters in 1996 to more than 50,000 meters in 1998, making it Aklan’s current leading cloth product. Its introduction has made the cloth for the barong more affordable, costing 20 to 25% less than pure piña. A barong made of pure piña costs about P6,000, while a piña seda barong is priced at about P4,000.

“But pure piña material is much more beautiful and stronger,” insists Tesoro.

Now, Tesoro’s piña ternos and barongs have become a de rigueur in formal functions. Interestingly, too, today, Tesoro is no longer the only buyer of piña, as many younger Filipino designers have already followed in her trail. “We definitely needed to go back to our roots,” says Tesoro.

Finding her in her San Pablo house, completely invigorated, all the more makes that invitation enticing.

A closer look inside her house would further reveal curios and accents like brass Gecko handles, seashells and corals resting on top of old cabinets, Dutch lamps, along with inherited furniture pieces. “Actually halo-halo. I brought in a lot of burda (embroidery). I love burda.”

And what really sets off the entire house is the color (mostly red, ochre and aged-wood hues) or the combination of the colors of the house pieces and the house itself which lends a general feeling of warmth and comfort to the house. The magic is that these colors seem to change as the hours pass. Looking out of the window to view a landscape of bamboos, Heliconias, Dieffenbacchias, and Philodendrons complete the whole magical effect.

“I am lucky enough here. I am lucky enough,” beams Tesoro. San Pablo, and the rest of the country should no doubt feel the same way for having someone like Tesoro around.