Textile Weaver, 2016
(born 4 March 1943)
By Earl Francis C. Pasilan
The Yakan of Basilan are known to be among the finest weavers in the Southern Philippines. They create eye-catching and colorful textiles with tiny motifs, and possess techniques wielded only by seasoned weavers accomplishing designs restricted for utilization within a certain weaving category only.
Weaving is an extremely important craft in the Yakan community. All Yakan women in the past were trained in weaving. Long ago, a common practice among the Yakan was that, when a female was born, the pandey, traditional midwife, would cut the umbilical cord using a wooden bar called bayre (other Yakan pronounce this as beyde). That bar was used for ‘beating-in’ the weft of the loom. By thus severing of the umbilical cord, it was believed that the infant would grow up to become an accomplished weaver. This, and all other aspects of the Yakan weaving tradition, is best personified by a seventy-three-year-old virtuoso from the weaving domicile of the Yakan in Parangbasak, Lamitan City: Ambalang Ausalin.
Apuh Ambalang, as she is called by her community of weavers, is highly esteemed in all of Lamitan. Her skill is deemed incomparable: she is able to bring forth all designs and actualize all textile categories typical to the Yakan. She can execute the suwah bekkat (cross-stitch-like embellishment) and suwah pendan (embroidery-like embellishment) techniques of the bunga sama category. She possesses the complex knowledge of the entire weaving process, aware at the same time of the cultural significance of each textile design or category. As a young girl, her mother, who was the best weaver of her time, mentored Ambalang. She practiced with strips of lugus and coconut leaves (mat-making material). Having learned from her mother the expert, Ambalang, using the backstrap loom, started to weave all designs of the bunga sama category, then took on the sinalu’an and the seputangan, two of the most intricate categories in Yakan weaving. They are the most intricate since the former requires the use of the minutest details of diamond or rhomboid designs, and the latter demands balance and the filling up of all the spaces on the warp with pussuk labung and dinglu or mata-mata patterns.
Secret in the comb
Ambalang, like other Yakan weavers, uses the back strap tension loom, which can be small or large depending on the type of cloth or design to be woven. This loom can be rolled, carried about, and set up easily. The weaver sits before the loom with a belt called awit around her waist; a warp beam, deddug, is suspended from a house beam diagonally in front of her. She braces her feet against a piece of wood called tindakan, and uses her body to keep the warp threads taut and in place. The warp is wound eight to ten meters or longer, just enough to make it easy for setting up the loom inside the house. The threads are pulled through a bamboo comb, sud, one at a time so that the threads are evenly spaced. This process is called paghani, the warping process. The secret of an intricately-woven cloth resides in the comb: the more the number of sticks that make up the comb, the closer its teeth, thus the tighter and more embossed or lifted the designs will be. This type of comb is called sud dendam. The pattern or design is made by counting the threads of the loom for each row. Each vertical row is bundled with a separate piece of yarn or sack thread so it can be used throughout the length of the loom. This process is called pagpeneh, that is, choosing the threads/making up the design. In this way the whole pattern is pre-programmed. This method is used in almost all cloth designs except for the seputangan, female headcloth. The sellag or thread for the background color of the woof is wound on a stick called anak tulak that can turn into a bamboo shuttle, tulak. The lesser the number of threads of the tulak, which the older weavers refer to as sellag mintedde or the single weft thread, the more embossed and tighter the designs will be. The multicolored thicker threads that make up the pattern called sulip, supplementary weft, are cut to a length of thirty centimeters or longer (depending on the design and the weaver’s skill), and placed in between the warp threads, as the pattern requires. The processes of maghani, warping; magpeneh, counting of threads/designing of patterns; and, magtennun, the actual weaving, can be rendered entirely by this masterful weaver.
The word ‘tennun’ in Yakan generally means woven cloth, and used in making the Yakan dress. Yakan textiles are often mistakenly described as ‘embroidered’ by people not familiar with the production process.
There are different categories of a Yakan cloth. Ambalang has mastered all these, although her artistry and craftsmanship are best expressed in the bunga sama, sinalu’an, and seputangan.
The bunga sama is a design or category of weaving with floral and bold designs. The cloth is usually fashioned into upper wear and pants, though only for the dress of a high status Yakan, specially the suwah bekkat and the suwah pendan. Today, however, the bunga sama is commonly produced and pressed to service as table runners, placemats, wall decor, or doilies. Ambalang can easily identify the variety of motifs in this category. Her best work for this form of weaving is always reflected in the bunga sama teed peneh pitumpuh (cloth with seventy designs), and the peneh kenna–kenna (fish-like design), peneh sawe–sawe (snake-like design), peneh dawen–dawen (folial design), and peneh kule–kule (turtle-like design).
She is also renowned for weaving the sinalu’an. This is a design or category of weave with stripes of the diamond twill technique. The finished cloth is traditionally sewn as trousers as well as upper wear. Under this category, Ambalang is best identified with the sinalu’an teed, the most complicated of all Yakan woven textiles. Each of the stripes has an elaborate pattern of very small diamonds and incised triangles resembling the sections of bamboo. It has tiny bands of zigzags called kalis-kalis (incisions); minute diamonds called bulak-bulak (flower-like); diminutive horizontal lines that separate the motifs into the littlest segments resembling the sections of the bamboo called batak or honga, small bands of diamonds inside the bulak-bulak called lepoq-lepoq; vertical rows of small dashes called olet-olet, sipit-sipit, or lelipan-lelipan (caterpillar-like); rows of crab-like motifs called kaka-kaka; a panel of jar-like motif called komboh-komboh; and the plain vertical lines or columns called bettik (resembling the contour of the land when planting in straight lines).
The seputangan is her other exemplary specialty, as it was her mother’s too. This cloth is a meter square in size with geometric designs, and is the most expensive part of the Yakan female ensemble because of its detailed design. This piece of cloth is folded and tied over the olos inalaman or olos pinalantupan to tighten the hold of the skirt around the waist. It may also be worn as a head covering. To this day, it is placed on the shoulders of brides and grooms during weddings. The pussuk labung (sawtooth), sipit–sipit or subid–subid (twill-like), dawen–dawen (leaf-like), harren–harren (staircases), kabban–buddi (diamonds/triangles), dinglu or mata (diamond/eye), and buwani–buwani (honeycomb-like) designs are evident in this type of cloth that sets apart Ambalang’s creations from those of other seputangan weavers.
Representative and realistic depictions
In Ambalang’s belief, traceable to the faith of her ancestors, diamonds represent rice grains and symbolize wealth. When four stars come together and appear like a single diamond in the sky, it means that harvest is approaching and will be plentiful. The diamonds are called mata-mata or dinglu–dinglu. The depiction of mountains, punoh–punoh (mountain-like), is set at the sides of the bunga–sama called higad–higad or sing or the balikat–balikat of the seputangan. The X’s represent rice mortars that are arranged in clusters along with the diamonds to form an interesting illusion. The interplay of X’s and diamonds symbolizes wealth and bountifulness in harvest. This particular pattern is seen on a seputangan, the Yakan headcloth, and inalaman, a high status overskirt. A floral motif is one of the most popular contrivances seen on the bunga–sama or on the border of an inalaman. The fairy or butterfly wings, locally known as the kaba–kaba or wing-like motif, as seen in the bunga–sama teed peneh pitumpuh, is the most intricate in the bunga–sama category. The snake is regarded as a vehicle of the spirits as in the mailikidjabaniya. This particular pattern, seen in the bunga–sama, symbolizes power and authority; cloth with this pattern is reserved exclusively for tailoring trousers for male members of high status or rich clans.
In Yakan weaving, most of the animal and plant motifs are realistically represented in textiles. The Yakan value nature as the mother of art and in their weaving, record the pure beauty of nature. The designs reflect the nature around Yakan customary habitation or occupation as agriculturists, as each cloth patterning is symbolic of the palay, unhusked rice, which also signals power, social status, and self-expression. The minuteness and compressed detail of a motif or design symbolize the Yakan’s sense of “community,” “togetherness,” or “harmony.” In the past, if a Yakan woman possessed the three great skills of warping, designing, and weaving, and was able to produce a cloth, sew it, and make a complete ensemble for her husband and children, she was regarded as an honorable woman, wife, and mother, which is how Ambalang is acknowledged in the Yakan community.
Through her recollection of the earliest strategies and techniques learned from her mother, Ambalang has started training Vilma, her daughter, and some of her nieces, in whom she sees the continuity of her craft in future years, and the successful handover of a heritage through generations of gifted weavers. For Ambalang to realize such artistry, she has to be in harmony with her soul, her spirit ancestors, her environment, her tools, her threads, her loom, and her Creator. The Yakan weaving complex engages the weaver entirely, body and soul, and all the elements that surround her.
The tennun Yakan is an extraordinarily important manifestation of Yakan culture. Its categories, colors, designs or motifs, and significance will constantly remind Ambalang, in her outstanding handwork, what it means to be Yakan — people of the earth. Through her craft, Ambalang as a’a pandey megtetennun (an expert weaver), affirms their identity as a people who continuously weave the threads of culture, interlacing past, present, and, hopefully, the future, in becoming a cultural treasure for the new generation Yakan, for all Filipinos, and all humankind.