The art of piña weaving or pag-hahabi has a deep and long history in the Philippines particularly in Aklan, Western Visayas. The intricate, silky fabric was traditionally used to create formal garments for the country’s elite. Today, a retail Barong Tagalog made of pure piña cloth sells for Php 24,999 in some online stores, yet Nanay Elizabeth sells her handwoven piña cloth barong tagalog for a fraction of that cost at Php3,500 to Php 4,000, including shipping fee.
Born and raised in Polocate, Banga Aklan, Elizabeth Rasonable said that weaving has been in her family longer than she can remember. It was a tradition passed down to her by her parents, which they inherited from their parents.
Elizabeth is 47 years old and a mother to five children, who are all still in school. Piña weaving has sustained their family for years. She taught the art of weaving and trained unemployed women from their village in order for her community to make extra income, and handles at least 100 weavers to date. With a business that relied mostly on walk-in and referrals, the pandemic has greatly affected the livelihood of not just Elizabeth, but also all the other women she works with.
“Kung tutuusin hindi naman kailangan yang produkto namin sa araw-araw ng mga tao, kaya nahirapan talaga ako nung nagka pandemya," Elizabeth said.
(If you think about it, our product is not for everyday use which is why I had a very hard time during the pandemic.)
According to Elizabeth, their sales went down by at least 20% when the pandemic struck, leaving her with no choice but to explore the world of online selling. With the help of her children, she was able to set up a Facebook page for her weaving business. Navigating through the online world was completely new for her. Without proper promotional and marketing knowledge and having really weak internet signal in her area, there was barely an improvement.
“Nakiki sabit lang po ako sa cellphone ng anak ko. Iisa lang ang ginagamit namin na cellphone na pang negosyo ko at pang online class nila, kaya mahirap talaga...minsan kung may klase ang anak ko mahirap isabay ang mga order. Minsan din hindi ko alam may nag-order na pala sa'min pero di ko makita kasi mahina talaga yung internet dito sa amin,” she said.
(I share a cellphone with my children. We only have one cellphone for my business and their online class, and that's really difficult. Sometimes, when my child has a class, I can't take orders. Other times, I'm not aware that an order has been sent to me because of the weak internet signal in our place.)
Despite the slow trickle-in of sales through her Facebook page, posting her creations online produced positive results for Elizabeth. She was approached by HABI The Philippine Textile Council who encouraged her to join the Lourdes Montinola Piña Weaving Contest.
“One week lang binigay sa'min bago yung contest. Naghanap talaga kami ng paraan para makagawa ng magandang product at nag-habi lang kami ng habi kahit hanggang gabi kahit pagod," she recalled.
(We were given only a week to prepare for the contest. We really looked for a way to make a nice product and just kept on weaving until the evening, even if we were tired.)
Elizabeth won the contest's Bagong Tanaw Award. Her fabric caught the attention of designers who then used it to create a beautiful Filipiñana piece that was worn by no other than Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray when she was chosen as the NCCA Arts Ambassador of 2020.
It was because of her now award-winning fabric that Elizabeth’s creations were noticed by the Office of the Vice President through their Angat Buhay program, which referred her to the micro-entrepreneur online store, Iskaparate. She immediately joined their training sessions.
“Malaki talaga ang natulong sa amin ng Iskaparate. Dito kami umaasa para makakuha ng order. Marami na rin Pilipino ngayon ang nagkaka gusto ulit sa mga traditional na gawang Pilipino gaya ng pag-hahabi kaya dumadami na rin ang mga order sa amin,” Elizabeth said.
(Iskaparate was able to help us a lot. We depend on the platform to get orders. Filipinos are now liking again traditional ways of making Filipino products such as weaving that's why we are also getting more orders.)
Like it has done for countless other women, Iskaparate has helped Elizabeth recover from her losses during the pandemic. They have given her a better platform for taking care of her business especially since the poor internet connection in the rural area of Aklan is one of her major problems. Iskaparate can manage her orders and relay messages and inquiries directly to her without requiring her to go online.
Although Elizabeth has recently been able to make ends meet for her family, her main concern now is helping her weavers bounce back. Before the pandemic, her weavers made Php130 per one meter of weaved piña cloth. Since the lockdown, the price per meter of cloth has gone down by 30%.
“Ang buyer namin na galing Manila, sinasabi nila na kapag mahal o hindi namin binabaan ang presyo, wala nang bibili sa amin kaya wala na kaming magawa," Elizabeth said.
(Buyers from Manila tell us that if our products are too expensive or we don't lower our prices, no one would buy from us anymore. We didn't have any choice.)
The past year saw a significant boom in locally sourced goods and materials. Products like solihiya home decor, buri mats, rattan baskets, katsa totes, and piña clothing have been making the social media rounds and have been staples in most millennial homes. However, this aesthetic doesn’t come cheap. Which begs the question: who are we really supporting when we #SupportLocal? When we choose to buy from well-curated stores, how much of that will actually go to the local farmers, weavers, and workers who have honed their craft for generations?
Despite the struggle that Elizabeth has had in the past year, she is determined to make it to a larger market through selling her products in Iskaparate. She sees the potential reach and what she can achieve, and is looking forward to the possibilities in store for her through online selling even after the pandemic.
Visit Nanay Elizabeth's Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Elizabeth-Rasonable-PIÑA-Weaving-301316777390171 🌱
All photos are from Nanay Elizabeth Facebook page.
(Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the English translation to the quotes in Filipino.)