Tinalak or t’nalak is a patterned cloth that is woven using abaca fibers that are either left uncolored or dyed red or black. I have always found the patterns beautiful and intricate, but I must admit I have taken it for granted over the years. It is not an uncommon sight around where I live. I see it pretty often as an element in home decor or as material for coin purses and bags, or even as accents that give an outfit a touch of the exotic. Tinalak items are sold in probably every souvenir shop in the Philippines.
I knew that tinalak is woven by the T’boli people, an indigenous culture that flourishes in the southern Philippines, amazingly despite all the pressure to adopt a more modern mentality and embrace the world of smartphones and Starbucks. I knew that this fabric can be made only by T’boli women. What I didn’t know was how tightly and how intimately this tapestry is woven into them, and how essential bits of themselves are woven into it.
Patterns in Tinalak, much like those in Scottish tartans, identify a tribe and are handed down from generation to generation. Tinalak is ever present in all the tribal rituals that mark important life milestones — birth, marriage, death. But more than this, there is a mystical dimension to the weaving of tinalak, which is considered a sacred act. It is said that a pattern has to be conceived in the weaver’s dreams before it woven, thus these women are sometimes called “dream weavers” and their creations referred to as “woven dreams”.
Master craftswomen eventually become custodians and interpreters of other people’s dreams as well, not just their own. In a people that has no form of writing, tinalak represents their literature and mythology, their history and their art, all of which are drawn and culled, and by some alchemy integrates with the weavers’ souls and find their way into their hands and their loom.
This is what genuine tinalak is, a kind of incarnation of a tribe’s spirit.
And thus with so much history, drama, and mysticism behind this cloth, artists and designers can’t help but be inspired by the tinalak and want incorporate some of that soul in their work. Though I now doubt that the place mats and cushions I see in the shops are tinalak in the truest sense (it seems quite sacrilegious if they were, wouldn’t it?), I see them as somehow touched by the special-ness of tinalak by their resemblance to it.