Charito Cariaga and the call of the loom
The textile weaver from Paoay, Ilocos Norte has made significant contributions to the continuance and promotion of traditional Ilocano handloom weaving
While not as widespread as before, traditional practice of textile weaving in the Philippines still survives to this day. The Ilocos Region in the northwestern portion of Luzon Island has one of the most vibrant loom-weaving activities in the Philippines with several, though diminished, communities still engaged in hand weaving, particularly in the provinces of La Union, Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte.
One of the most prominent proponents in keeping the Ilocano textile tradition alive is Charito Esposo Cabulisan Cariaga from the town of Paoay. Aside from old, baroque Saint Augustine Church, which was inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site, the town in the southern part of Ilocos Norte, about 18 kilometers from the provincial capital Laoag City, is proud of its traditional textiles, which are woven in several of its barangays, most likely the most in any of the provinces.
Cariaga is esteemed when it comes to this cottage industry, known for her knowledge and indefatigable promotion of the handwoven textiles, generally called inabel, meaning “something woven,” in the Ilocano language. Sadly, she passed away on 11 August 2023 at the age of 82. She suffered a mild stroke on 12 May and her health consequently deteriorated.
Her nephew, Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero, wrote a tribute on his Facebook page on 20 August, saying, “When I came back home 14 years ago leaving Manila for good, I struggled adjusting and recalibrating my life back in the province. Home was familiar, yet strangely unfamiliar too. It was a rough time. I did not have a lot of friends around anymore, and there were many things I could not reconcile with and relate to — even until now. One of those who sympathized with me and understood my plight more than others, from whom I was able to find some support and comfort, was my aunt Charito Esposo Cabulisan Cariaga. We shared a lot of things in common: Stubbornness, bossiness, a soft heart for family and relatives, love for culture and traditions, being dangerously forthright and sincere, selflessness, a notorious preference in using English when speaking, among others… A part of me died when I heard of her passing. I will miss her greatly.”
Several of the characteristics he mentioned manifested when we visited to shoot a video on weaving. We were very late and she was visibly annoyed, berating us for keeping her waiting and speaking rapidly in English. Her anger eventually dissipated when we talked about traditional weaving. She generously showed us her trove of hand-woven textiles and blankets at her house behind the office of the Nagbacalan Loomweavers Multi-Purpose Cooperative, which she founded and headed, standing on one of the banks of Paoay Lake in the barangay of Nagbacalan.
Cariaga was born on 6 September 1941, and spent her childhood in Paoay, where textile weaving was part of everyday life.
“My mother used to weave. During summer time, there was a loom that was ready for us, one brother and three sisters,” she reminisced. “We wove during the summer, and we wove one hour per day. We started weaving when we were young, about seven or eight years old. And we just did the blanket, pillowcases and curtains. Those were the only things that we used to do when we were young.”
She remembered that during her childhood, weaving was commonplace in the whole town. Most of the households has two looms, one for weaving the blanket and the other for making the fringes of the blanket. Her own mother, who taught her, constantly wove.
“My mother wove even when she was [still] in school. When she came home from school, she did her weaving because she had to make our blankets, our curtains, our pillowcases and some table napkins that she gave as gifts. She did not stop weaving,” she said.
Though she did actually experience harvesting cotton to make textiles, she said that they grew their own cotton in the past.
“At the start, we had to gather the cotton, pick the cotton and then clean it. And then you have to gin it — ginning, taking out the seeds — and then you have to pound the cotton, in order for the cotton to be soft and make it into threads. Now if you have the threads already, you can start warping for your weaving. We had to do everything from scratch,” she explained.
She remembered a farmer who grew cotton and tried to sell them, but there very few buyers until he lost interest. Manufactured and synthetic threads were gaining popularity as material because of their convenience. Until now, Ilocano textiles are mostly made from store-bought manufactured threads. There are attempts to revive cotton cultivation such as in the town of Pinili, where there is a community of weavers including Magdalena Gamayo who was honored as a Manlilikha ng Bayan or National Living Treasure by the national government and who just celebrated her 99th birthday a couple of days after Cariaga died.
Harvesting cotton and preparing it for weaving — ginning, pounding, spinning, skinning, spooling and warping — are tedious work aside from the actual weaving itself. Another stage in traditional textile production is dyeing, and Cariaga remembered using natural dyes.
“Before, natural dyes. Now, the threads are already dyed or colored so we don’t have to dye,” she said.
The weaver said they have a lot of dye sources such as tamarind, which produces a green color; mahogany, brown; the mayana or painted coleus, red; and annatto seeds, red.
Ilocano weavers also make different designs, using different techniques to create these.
“During the olden times, all the barangays in Paoay have their own specialties. In our barangay, Nagbacalan, our specialty is the kundiman which uses five pedals. Another barangay, which is Nalasin, specializes in sinukitan. I remember Sungadan specializes in the double-faced or uses four pedals. Paratong and Callaguip specialize in towel,” she said.
Cariaga showed us blankets in different colors woven in the multi-heddle kundiman design technique. Thicker than the usual weaves, the blankets usually sport seven designs — the X, wave patterns, the panyo, the takder–idda (literally, “stand up and lie down”), flower, cat’s paw and impalagto, which is actually a weaving design technique, a type of pinilian.
But “As time went by, people started not liking to weave because they said, during… I think that was early 1990s or late 1980s, when raw materials were very, very expensive, yet the customers are buying [the textiles at] very low prices. So, they really lost their interest in weaving until we came back,” she said.
Cariaga entered college at the University of the Philippines Los Baños in Laguna, where she often demonstrated weaving for fellow students and teachers, and graduated with a degree in Home Technology in 1964. She worked as a schoolteacher, got married and went to live in Virginia in the United States for 14 years. When she returned to the Philippines, she did not imagine that she would play an important role in renewing interest in weaving and its growth as an industry.
“My husband was talking to the barangay officials because we were at a wake at the time. My late husband was asking the people or the barangay officials how we could help, and one of them told him if I am only willing to start an association of weavers, we could help the womenfolk as well as the menfolk,” she related.
“I was volunteered by my late husband, and I only found out that I was already volunteered when the barangay officials came to the house with a lot of weavers. That was the only time I knew about it. And I could not say no anymore although I was very, very hesitant in accepting because I did not know the market, I did not know where to get things. But the Department of Trade and Industry and MMSU (Mariano Marcos State University) Batac helped us in sourcing out materials. So that was how we started. We only started with 13 members until we became a lot. But we are not really interested in a lot of people, if the quality of these members are not really good.”
Nagbacalan Loomweavers Association was established in 1992 with 13 members and a start-up capital of P5,200. Their first major project was supplying textiles to be made into uniforms of the employees of the Department of Education Ilocos Norte branch. It became a cooperative with about 30 members, and it also became a model for the hand-weaving industry, receiving assistance from local and national agencies.
Through a United States Agency for International Development-funded project, they were able to develop new designs. They also regularly participated in trade fairs, selling their products as well as spreading more awareness on Ilocano textile weaving.
Aside from kundiman blankets, Cariaga said, “We also make placemats, runners, dress materials, netting, sinukitan, hand towels, table napkins, pillowcases and whatever you want as long as we can do it, we’ll do it for you.”
She said the cooperative has helped create livelihoods for people in the barangay as well as keep the craft alive, despite that fact that there are fewer weavers in Paoay than before.
“I think there is only one weaver in Paratong, and one weaver in Callaguip. In Nalasin, where they weave the sinukitan, probably less than 10 are weaving,” Cariaga recounted. “In Mumulaan, they are also weaving the kundiman but not that many are working there anymore. In Sungadan, I don’t think there are weavers anymore there. People there were making blankets out of four pedals. I don’t see anybody in Sungadan anymore. We have the most number of weavers in Nagbacalan.”
To promote traditional weaving, she often gives talks to schools to encourage young weavers.
“I’m trying to talk to a lot of students, but I don’t think they have the interest. But we have young weavers, about 20 years old. And they are very good weavers. They’re very, very good weavers. And I am so thankful about that. They can make money out of it but then if you are lazy and you don’t have the passion, you will not be able to do it. You have to have a lot of patience,” she said.
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