For more than 300 years, women living around a turquoise lake in the Philippines have woven cloth from visions ‘given to them by a goddess’ in their dreams.
“In Mindanao, women weave their dreams into cloth. They are the weavers of dreams,” said volunteers at the Philippine Museum of Economic History in Iloilo City, Philippines.
He pointed at the image of a white-red linear pattern woven against a black background.
Intrigued, I asked for more details, but all the man said was that these women live on the shores of Lake Sebu.
But since the end of martial law in 2020, Mindanao has carefully opened its doors, allowing tourists who dare ignore government warnings to come face to face with one of Asia’s most enchanting traditions: dream weaving.
For at least three centuries, the indigenous T’boli people have passed down the practice of dream weaving, or T’nalak, in villages around Lake Sebu, a turquoise lake nestled in the fertile mountains of southern Mindanao.
These strands of cloth are made from natural fibers taken from the stems of the abaca plant which looks like bananas.
Villagers believe that a goddess, Fu Dalu (abacá spirit), communicates with women by appearing in their dreams as animal or human figures.
Master dream weavers then interpret these visions into patterns that usually take three to four months to weave.
The process is done entirely by hand with natural materials, and although led by a master weaver, it is a collective community effort that is considered a sacred tribute to the goddess.
The Lang Dulay T’nalak Weaving Center, located in a T’boli (Gono Bong) wooden longhouse three kilometers east of the lake in T’Bong Village, is one of the main centers of T’nalak.
The weaving center’s name honors the late master weaver Lang Dulay, daughter of T’boli and one of the most famous dream weavers.
Currently, the incumbent master weaver is Bulan Dulay, Lang’s son-in-law, who has been weaving for over 60 years.
When I entered, Sebulan stood up and greeted me by playing a melody on a gong line, while his son, Charlie, accompanied him on the drums.
“This is how we welcome guests,” he smiled. When Bulan returns to weaving, Charlie, who runs the weaving center, explains how dream weaving works.
The ability to turn dreams into patterns is considered a mysterious and special skill, so even though everyone dreams, only a select few women become dream weavers.
According to Charlie, this skill was always acquired under Fu Dalu’s tutelage and required years of practice.
Most young weavers only study and weave designs that dream weavers “see” – especially Lang Dulay.
The late master weaver left around 100 distinctive T’nalak patterns, each with its own name and story, from Gemayaw Logi, the legendary prince of T’boli, to Sobobun, a tiny frog in Lake Sebu.
Only senior weavers, like Sebulan, can weave their own dreams.
When I arrived, his latest creation had just been ordered by a Japanese customer. The cloth he made features a white bird (called the Hafak Bull Blila) encased in a red diamond-shaped cage, with two symmetrical rectangular heads and a pair of outstretched wings, as if in flight.
Apart from overseas buyers, Sebulan’s works were also purchased by wholesalers from Manila. The price of this cloth can reach up to 1,500 Philippine pesos (Rp. 400,000) per meter.
Although the design process is full of mystery, the weaving process is easier to understand. Turning the rough stems of abaca into woven thread is hard work.
First, the fleshy material inside the stem is separated, dried, rubbed, and combed to produce soft, supple fibers.
Charlie showed me a bunch of these fibers, each about 2m long and resembling the white hair of an old man.
The bundle contains about 1,400 strands, which make up about 6m meters of T’nalak.
After the fibers are collected, they are woven and dyed.
I watched as Moon wrapped black thread around a bundle of abacá fibers straightened with machine-like speed and precision.
T’nalak contains three colors: white represents purity, red represents blood and black represents soil.
Apart from the white abacá, the other two colors also come from native plants.
The red color comes from the roots of the loko tree which is red-brown in color, while the black color is obtained by boiling the green leaves of the knalum tree for seven days until they become dark like ink.
While Bulan works, a teenage girl combs through the tangled bundles of abacá fibers to increase their softness and durability and prepare them for weaving.
Beside her, another woman was weaving the weft into the warp dyed threads on a loom revealing intricate textile patterns.
The practice of T’nalak includes some strict taboos. For example, as a form of respect for Fu Dalu, female weavers and their husbands are prohibited from having sex during the extensive weaving process.
But even though only women can become dream weavers, men are also involved.
Men are usually responsible for planting and peeling the abacá, as well as smoothing the newly woven cloth.
To do so, they attached a cowrie shell to one end of the abacá stem post and connected the other end to the roof as a hinge, pushing the post to apply pressure to the fibers with the shell.
There are about 70 families in T’Bong Village, and Charlie tells me there are about 25 skilled weavers and about a dozen freelancers.
According to the Philippine Museum of Economic History, dream weaving was once widespread around Lake Sebu. But after exploring some of the other villages around the lake, I didn’t find a single family still weaving, suggesting that this long-lived tradition may be fading.
As Mindanao started to reopen, resorts started popping up along the lake. Many are adorned with decorations related to T’boli and T’nalak, but after asking staff at three different resorts, no one knows the story behind them.
In a lakeside shop that sells T’nalak to tourists, a local woman can’t explain any of the patterns she’s selling.
However, there are still locals who are committed to keeping the T’boli tradition alive.
Since 1995, Maria Todi, an ambassador for T’boli culture, has been running the Lake Sebu School of Living Traditions in a longhouse by the lake. In addition to weaving taught by other skilled weavers, she also teaches T’boli music and dance to local children.
Maria Todi has also documented various T’boli cultural traditions, including T’nalak.
When we spoke at her school, she explained that these precious textiles were once used as currency, and could even replace cows or buffalo as dowry at weddings.
He says that as T’boli quickly assimilated into modern society, T’nalak, like many of their other traditions, lost its practical value, receding into a purely cultural symbol that was in danger of being forgotten.
“The reason we founded the School of Living Traditions [is] to awaken, educate children so they understand, when our culture dies, our existence dies,” he said.
According to Maria Todi, T’boli culture should not only be presented to tourists, but practiced at home.
“In the past, my students sometimes performed at resorts for money, but now I don’t allow them anymore,” he explains.
“Tourists only glance at the show while eating, they can’t learn anything from it.”
This concern also extended to T’nalak. For those who don’t know its origins, it is nothing more than a piece of cloth.
But for those who are aware of how T’boli women have sought through the centuries to record their fleeting dreams, these fabrics stand as a lasting testament to cultures and people who see our world and the spiritual world differently.
Source : BBC