Philippine textiles and fabrics that are more sustainable than cotton

philippine textiles and fabric

Cotton is a cheap fabric but at the same time durable, breathable, hypoallergenic, and easy to care for. Most garments and fabrics are made with cotton in some way.

Until recently, we never had a problem with cotton. Or, so we thought. A huge number of issues surrounding cotton farming have come to light. And they are too big to ignore. Here’s the reality:

Cotton is a thirsty crop.

Did you know that 2,700 liters of water is used to produce cotton for a single t-shirt? When cotton farms are forced in areas that don’t get enough rain, rivers are diverted for irrigation. Such is the devastating fate of the Aral Sea, the world’s 4th largest lake now reduced to parched land. Hundreds of flora and fauna species are left thirsty.

Use of toxic pesticides is prevalent.

Regular cotton is usually a monocrop. This monoculture invites all sorts of pests, insects and fungi into the farms. So cotton farmers resort to herbicides and pesticides to protect their crops. Because that doesn’t always work, farmers are using genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The toxic chemicals remain in the farmland dust. And 43 million tons of this deadly dust are blown into the air each year, which is associated with cancer mortality. Not to mention, the animals living within the parameter are exposed to the chemical aftermath.

Slave-labor is still being used.

Even now with cotton-picking machines, slaves are still used in many stages of making cotton. While there are regulations prohibiting this practice in the U.S. and Europe, fashion companies that outsource their cotton fabrics are not held accountable for slave-labor practices in the international stages of their production. 

Cotton leaves and branches often clog the machines and cause them to break down. So cotton harvesting still requires physical labor. In some cases, farmers use defoliants to kill off the unwanted plant matter. The chemical makes harvesting easier for machines, but they are extremely toxic.

Soil degradation.

Sometimes farmers would pull out cotton plants to get rid of any eggs or spores from the field. When soil is exposed to the air, it loses nutrients. So fertilizers are added to the soil. Nitrogen is the most common ingredient in synthetic fertilizer. Problem is nitrogen fertilizers are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Governments encourage cotton farming.

The industry gets billions of dollars in subsidies. This makes changing the status quo a difficult feat.

The industry continues to invest in research and technology on improving cotton farming techniques and fertilizer efficiency. In fact, U.S. producers have reported 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 1980.

However, this is not enough. To further minimize the environmental effects of our global clothing industry, we can look to alternative crops to make sustainable fabric. Many of these can be found in our own beautiful island group. The Philippines has fantastic fabrics and textiles made from homegrown crops. Its weaving industry, in particular, showcases the richness and exuberance of its cultural heritage.

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Local textiles and fabrics

1. Piña fabric

Dubbed as the Queen of Philippines textiles, piña fabric is often used in making the country’s national costumes, i.e. barong and terno.

It’s largely produced in Kalibo, Aklan,  where communities of indigenous weavers still use traditional weaving and dyeing techniques to this day. The time-honored tradition was nominated by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2018.

Piña cloth is prized locally and internationally for its luxurious sheerness and durability. It comes in different varieties such as piña seda (woven with silk) and piña jusi (woven with abaca). Piña silk is popular among the Philippine elite as well as high fashion producers in North America and Europe.

How it’s made

Fibers used to make piña cloth are derived from the mature leaves of the red Bisaya pineapple plant. The extraction process is a most tedious and delicate one.

  • The leave are cut off from the plant
  • The outermost layer of the leaf is hand-scraped using a shard of fine Chinese porcelain. This exposes the rough fiber, also called bastos fiber.
  • The stripped leaves are then run across a coconut shell to expose the finer liniwan fiber.
  • The liniwan strands are repeatedly rinsed, beaten and air dried.
  • Once completely dried, the liniwan strands are knotted one by one to create a continuous thread.
  • The thread can now be handwoven varieties of piña cloth. It can also be used for scarves, table linens, tapestries, bags, mats, or any item that requires a stiff, sheer and lightweight fabric. 

Although production of piña fabrics still employs traditional methods, the large number of local producers is able to meet its local and global demand. Producers are also looking at ways to introduce innovation without compromising quality.

Pineapples grow plentiful in different parts of the country. All materials used in making piña cloth are all grown locally. Even the dyes used to color the fabrics are sourced from vegetables. One can say it is indeed a sustainable trade.

2. Abaca

Earlier Visayan textiles were traditionally made from hemp materials. This comes from the abaca plant, also known as Manila hemp. It is a wild banana species that doesn’t bear edible fruit but produces a strong fiber.

Abaca cloth is produced in many regions in the Philippines. But the T’boli tribe of Southern Mindanao is most popular for their artistry and special hand-woven abaca fabric called Nalak.

How it’s made

Cloth weavers make garments using abaca-woven fiber. These are dyed with vibrant colors through the ikat method which uses natural dyes derived from indigenous plants.

  • The men of the tribe usually harvest the abaca trees as it requires some physical brawn. In separating the pulp and the fiber, the abaca stalk is inserted between blocks of wood held securely on a horizontal beam. Then the harvester pulls the stalk with a knife pressing down on it.
  • Now it’s the women’s job to comb the fibers to remove the sap. This must be done immediately to prevent the strands from darkening. The combed fibers are hung to dry.
  • The strands are then sorted according to thickness. The finer ones are reserved for the warp (lengthwise threads) and the thicker ones are reserved for the weft (crosswise threads).
  • Once adequately supple, the women hand-rub the abaca strands to make them softer and pliant. Then, they knot the fibers from end to end and tie dye them. Now it’s ready for the weave.
  • The abaca strands are tightly woven on a backstrap handloom (legogong). And the finished textile is polished and smoothed out using seashells

The T’boli tribe uses abaca textile mainly for tubular skirts worn by men and garments for women. Generally, it can be used to make all sorts of clothing, bags, ropes, and native weavings. As opposed to piña, abaca cloth is coarser but equally strong.

Abaca fabric is arguably the most environmentally friendly fabric, because its production uses very little water and electricity.

Moreover, abaca producers follow certain rules in harvesting the raw materials. Only trees with a trunk 14-18 inches in diameter must be used. It takes about two to three years to grow into that size, so less mature plants must remain in their roots. Upon harvest, the trees are cut at a few inches above the ground to allow them to regrow.

Abaca is also a hundred percent biodegradable.

Once used mainly for products like ropes and slippers, abaca is now reinvented into a luxury eco textile. An epitome of eco-fashion.

3. Jusi

Jusi is the lovechild of abaca and piña fibers. Still sheer but made with a stronger and tighter weave.  When woven along with locally grown silk threads, cotton, and rayon, jusi fibers make the iconic Hablon textile.

Hablon is the fast-rising star of Philippine textiles. It is currently making waves in local and international haute couture. Though, traditionally, it is used for products such as the colorful, checkered patadyong skirt and bandanas.

Where to buy sustainable fabrics

Buying local not only helps to protect the environment but also preserves age-old weaving traditions.

Indigenous textiles and fabrics are sold in many local shops and even online. Right here in Cebu, we have shops that specialize in weaves, textiles, and fabrics that are proudly Filipino made.

On top of the list is ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, which opened shop way back in 2010. ANTHILL stands for Alternative Nest and Trading/Training Hub for Indigenous/Ingenious Little Livelihood seekers. It advocates handloomed fabrics and highlights their use in 21st century fashion and lifestyle.

Aside from handwoven and hand loomed fabrics, you will find a selection of printed fabrics in limited cuts at ANTHILL.

Cebu also has specialised cottage industries that make local fabrics. The most notable are located in Argao. They produce and sell fabrics including a wool type cloth called kinarnero, hablon, etc. Their products are often displayed in exhibits such as the Gabii sa Kabilin event or heritage places like Casa Gorordo Museum.

Outside Cebu, local textiles and fabrics can be sourced from the following manufacturers and brands:

  • La Hermina Piña Weaving Industry
  • Reycon’s Piña Cloth and Industry
  • Malabon Piña Producers and Weavers Association
  • Rurungan sa Tubod Foundation
  • Creative Definitions
  • Filip+Inna
  • Casa Mercedes
  • Manila Collectible
  • Gifts & Graces Foundation
  • Yakang Yaka
  • Interweave
  • Good Luck
  • Humans

There isn’t one single fabric that can sustainably meet the needs of over 7 billion people. But we can change our consumer habits to help the environment.

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About the author

Hey, it’s Chenzi! A writer made in Cebu. Stringing words is my bread and butter, but baking and mothering my 3-year-old are what feed my soul. I have an insatiable thirst for learning.