Revitalising Indigenous Weaving Cultures Across Borders: Conversations and Collaborations between Taiwan and the Philippines

Written by Shau-lou Young.

Image Credit by the Author.

Weaving is a significant material culture in Indigenous Peoples’ society in Taiwan and the Philippines. In the past, hand-made textiles were necessities in their daily lives. However, with the introduction of fabrics into their society, only a few women continued to weave. Today, Atayal weavers in Taiwan and Ifugao weavers in the Philippines are working hard to revive their weaving culture. They brought back and conserved disappearing weaving techniques and knowledge and remade some long-lost textiles.

Yuma Taru, an Atayal weaver, aimed to revitalise the Atayal weaving culture and founded Lihang Studio in Maoli County, Taiwan. She left her stable job and returned to her hometown, where she started to learn weaving from her grandmother and devised a two-decade plan to revive weaving connected to Atayal culture. During the first decade, she conducted field research with Atayal elders to record and restore Atayal weaving knowledge. Then she devoted the next ten years to passing on her weaving knowledge to the younger generation. She also established S’uraw Education School to promote Indigenous education in dyeing and weaving. Now she is well known as an advocate for preserving traditional arts and cultural heritage and has received national living treasure honours.

Similarly, the Kyyangan Weavers Association was established in the Ifugao province in the Philippines to conserve and promote Ifugao weaving culture. It is an affiliate of Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo). The shared mission of these two NGOs is to document, protect and conserve Ifugao culture and traditional practices and provide benefits to local communities. In addition, they collaborated with academic institutions, government agencies and other non-government entities on research and product development. Now they also founded a social enterprise, “Ifugao Nation”, to offer economic opportunities in communities.

Seeking Alternatives through Overseas Experience

Through weaving revitalisation, traditional textiles become part of the cultural identity of these Indigenous peoples. More young Indigenous people appreciate their weaving culture and want to learn weaving techniques. However, it is strenuous to weave consistently as a weaver. Weaving is considered to be a highly labour-intensive task. Traditional weaving tools cause health problems, including backache, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and impaired eyesight. In addition, it is hard to find a tutor to teach weaving due to the declining number of weavers and the continuous loss of weaving skills. In Yuma’s studio, she created a mentorship programme for young weavers. However, she can only train a limited number of weavers, and weaving promotion is still in process.

Two Indigenous weaving organisations face the same challenges and want to learn experiences from other Indigenous people abroad. The Council of Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan offered Kyyangan Weavers Association the opportunity to visit Yuma’s studio from December 3 to 8, 2022. Four Ifugao weavers, Marlon Martin, Paulette Crespillo-Cuison, Bumilac Li-ubon Marcelino, and Andrea Aswigue, travelled to Taiwan to share their weaving techniques, culture preservation, and product development knowledge at the Museum of Fiber Arts in Taichung City and Lihang Studio in Miaoli County. For the Ifugao people, weaving is not merely a kind of technology. It is profoundly rooted in their culture. SITMo built a weaving space and an Indigenous people education centre in Kiangan, Ifugao, so that weavers and children may practise weaving and learn about Ifugao culture.

In Lihang Studio, Yuma Taru explained her experience researching traditional textiles in over two hundred Atayal communities and how she classified and documented textiles from various Atayal groups. Nowadays, some weaving patterns and skills are forgotten. Even elderly weavers cannot recall how their mothers and grandmothers made their textiles. As a result, Yuma’s research team visited museums that collected old Atayal textiles, recorded those pieces, and remade new samples for their studio documentation. In addition, Yuma built a ramie garden for traditional weaving materials and an Atayal-dyed weaving culture park. She strives to pass on the ancestors’ way of weaving.

Four Ifugao weavers learned how to collect ramie from the garden and make ramie threads. Then, they demonstrated their special weaving skills, “binobodan” (ikat weave), to the Atayal weavers of the Lihang Studio. Subsequently, Ifugao weavers and Atayal weavers made a textile to commemorate their collaboration. Now, the textile is dyed and warped by Ifugao weavers, and Atayal weavers will complete it on their visit to Ifugao in 2023.

Sustaining Indigenous Weaving Cultures

In both Atayal and Ifugao societies, the path to ancestral weaving is hampered by the shifting tides of modernisation. Weavers cannot just focus on conserving traditional weaving techniques; they must also create new weaving products to support their families. Yuma Taru and Marlon Martin, the COO of SITMo, explained how they design new products while retaining their culture. Yuma creates contemporary fine arts using traditional materials like ramie threads and natural dyes. And for Marlon creates new hues and styles of Ifugao textiles. Weaving is a living culture that continues to create new cultural meanings as the world changes due to the people who make and use it. 

Meanwhile, it produces new cultural contexts and articulates the contemporary world through daily practices. Lihang Studio and Kyyangan Weavers Association show how Indigenous people in the modern world sustain their culture and also present their modernity by keeping the weaving culture alive. Weavers are not only weaving textiles but also weaving their culture and identity for the next generation. 

When Atayal weavers met Ifugao weavers, they knew they were not alone on the way to reviving weaving culture. During this visit, weavers in Taiwan and the Philippines found similar experiences and challenges and learned from each other’s ideas and strategies. And in the future, they can help and collaborate with each other and share experiences with other Indigenous Peoples.

Shau-lou Young is a PhD candidate in Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University. She earned her M.A. in Indigenous Studies, National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan. Before entering in the PhD program, Young had participated in several research teams at different universities for making advanced study on indigenous knowledge system of Taiwan indigenous people. At present Young is working on her Ph.D. fieldwork both in Tsou community in southern Taiwan and in Ifugao world in the Philippines for a comparative study of the relationships between agriculture rituals and indigenous modernity.

It was published as part of a special issue on “Indigenous Weaving and Its Evolving Cultures.”

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