Nestled amid torrent waterfalls and treasure troves of wonder are the Tboli communities of South Cotabato, Mindanao Island. It’s a lovely place to dream here. Ask any of the Tboli women – the ‘dream weavers’ – as they carefully string together visions from their dreams into a majestic mystical cloth, known as the T’nalak. These women are the dreamers and weavers who have created the captivating designs that are almost synonymous with Philippine textile design.
The T’nalak – a sacred cloth distinctive for its tri-colour scheme and symmetrical designs – is hand-woven by the Tboli women. The background is usually black or a deep brown, and the patterns themselves are white with red elements.
Known as ‘dream weavers’, the Tboli women must first visualise the designs of the T’nalak in their dreams before initiating the design process.
Made from natural abaca fibres or Manila hemp, the cloth is used in rituals, festivals or as an offering to spirits. The T’nalak is hand dyed using roots, leaves and the bark of the ‘loko’ plant or ‘k’nalum’ tree to create its unique pigment.
The strength of the fabric lies in the abaca fibre. The dye is incredibly wear-resistant, remaining permanent if well taken care of. The surface of the T’nalak is glazed with beeswax and polished with a cowry shell to produce its smooth sheen.
The entire creative process, from conceptualisation to the finished product is a sacred undertaking. Adding to the design as they dream, a single cloth may take more than a year to finish.
Besides their own dreaming, the concept behind each design is sometimes granted to a Tboli woman via an ancestor or through the spirit of the abaca, referred to as “Fu Dalu” – a process enriched with much taboo and ritual.
The women make fine use of two metal blades to remove the pulp and expose the tendrils in a process called “kedungon”. These tendrils are then worked by hand into fine threads.
T’nalak creation is an art form, perfected over years of practice. Starting out as young girls, it can take almost ten years for a female to fully master, and be trusted with, the art of weaving the T’nalak cloth.