Arts & Leisure

By Susan Claire Agbayani

Exploring traditional embroidery, supporting an endangered craft

Posted on March 02, 2016

“MOST OF THE time, people like paintings because they last long. They don’t know that fabric could last long, too. It’s just that we [Filipinos] went through World War II [when Manila was] were carpet-bombed. We have insects -- the bukbok (weevil) and have amag (mold) that hits tropical countries. We have floods and typhoons that destroy a lot [of fabric], but which could also destroy paintings,” Patis Tesoro -- the “grand dame of Philippine fashion” -- said during a talk on the second day of the two-day Embroidery Exchange at Patis Tito Garden Café in San Pablo, Laguna on Feb. 20 and 21.

SCENES from a collaboration: designer Patis Tesoro (R) holds up a tapestry that was a collaboration between Tinggian weavers and embroiderers from Abra and embroiderers from Lumban, Laguna: a master embroiderer adds fine European influenced details to a piece of piña-seda (silk-pineapple fiber blend); Tinggians work on the collaborative tapestry. -- ROYAL BERTO COURTESY OF PATIS TESORO
“In the old days, clothes were treasured and given to the next generation, not this throw-away generation we have today when we buy cheap clothing then throw them away [when they’re worn out],” she said, lamenting the concomitant loss of skills needed to make long-lasting fabrics.

The Embroidery Exchange was a collaborative encounter between the embroiderers of Lumban, Laguna, led by Alida Tagorda, and the Tinggians of Namarabar, Peñarrubia, Abra, headed by Norma Agaid. Both leaders are “artisan entrePinay colleagues” of Tesoro’s.

Ms. Tesoro, who has a “perennial passion for the handmade,” was curious to see what would happen if the two distant groups of craftspeople from Northern and Central Luzon shared their respective embroidery techniques and designs.

She said that she wanted to see “If the Itnegs could acquire the finesse of Christian embroidery; and if the Lumban women could learn how to stitch the Itneg symbols such us those of the frog, rice field, dancing man, spider, and star, and incorporate these in their work as well,” Ms. Tesoro was quoted as saying in a press release.

“We thought it would be successful if over a hundred arrived today. But we had around 130 to 150 guests...” Ms. Tesoro told the writer at the end of Day 1 of the Embroidery Exchange.

“I didn’t know Filipinos would be interested in textile!” she said, especially since the Embroidery Exchange was being held on the same weekend as the popular Art Fair Philippines in Makati. Among those who attended the event were students, academics, heritage enthusiasts and experts, collectors, sustainable entrepreneurs, artists, designers and crafters, tourists, expats and members of the diplomatic corps.

“The Embroidery Exchange visit brought me back to my past life as an exporter of baby linen for two decades when I hired embroiderers until the economic crisis of 2009,” said Annatha Lilo Gutierrez who trained as a visual artist with Dr. Rod Paras-Perez. Planning to create art using textiles, embroidery, she said: “I look forward to the Embroidery Exchange and other efforts promoting innovations in local textiles, weaving and embroidery yet conserving the craft.”

“Patis’s Embroidery Exchange did what most fashion schools cannot do. It provided a healthy atmosphere to learn and experience traditional textile arts,” said Jean Dee, former DLS-CSB Fashion Design Program Chair and Finalist in the 53rd Japan Fashion Design Contest. “You learn about textiles and the people who make it as you retreat to an environment where it is made. Immersed in this brief experience, one gets a full appreciation of our history, tradition and identity. You go home empowered carrying with you a sense of pride, treasuring and wanting to continue what they started,” she said.

While she had been described by columnist Edu Jarque as “a cultural maven, entrepreneur, book publisher, restaurateur, plant and animal lover, fashion designer, doll-maker, world traveller and bon vivant,” Ms. Tesoro simply wants to be called an artist and dressmaker “whose mission is cultural regeneration through textile revival and the cultivation of its appreciation in generations to come.”

Her daughter, Nina Poblador, wrote a paper on her mother for the Center for Business Research and Development of De La Salle University, which said that Ms. Tesoro “...has done her fair share in uplifting homegrown arts and crafts by meticulously creating unique pieces of textile, clothing, home decor, and fine art, all of which have been sold worldwide.” Her mother’s creative and classic designs use indigenous Filipino materials like silk, tiniri, abel, abaca and piña.

It was after opening the museum Patrones de Casa de Manila in the early 1980s that Ms. Tesoro realized that there were only a handful of part-time weavers left of the hand-woven piña (from pineapple leaf fiber) fabric, and they were already in their late ’70s and ’80s. She lobbied for nearly two years for the training of the younger generation. She and some colleagues went on to put up the Katutubong Filipino Foundation (KFF), a “nonprofit organization whose mission was to revive indigenous Filipino arts and crafts,” during the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos.

“In 1996, [Tesoro] transformed her ‘brand’ from simple dressmaker to artisanal textile stalwart by defining her focus: The revival and sustained production of our national textile, piña,” Ms. Poblador wrote in BusinessWorld’s High Life magazine last year.

“We are the only country in the whole world that wears, eats and uses piña. When you go abroad, when you say ‘piña,’ people would reply, ‘Oh, Philippines!’ But where does piña come from? It’s a bromeliad. According to the book of Lourdes Montinola, the theory is that it came from a South American country to the Philippines from Mexico via the Galleon Trade,” Ms. Tesoro said during her talk.

She showed a dress and a jacket that had tapestries of woven fabric from South Cotabato that’s totally beaded with coconut beads. It also has tapestries from other tribes. She also showed a copy of The Art of Philippine Embellishment which she wrote decades ago.

Ms. Tesoro’s distinct design motifs that adorn delicate callado, stitched in European-style shadow work and done mostly in piña, had always been a welcome challenge to Ms. Tagorda and her team of embroiderers over the last 25 years. There were times when even the most highly skilled of these artisans took years to finish “a piece of yardage.” Ms. Tesoro has so far dealt with two generations of embroiderers from Lumban, but is aware that the third generation are already around and will someday take over.

Ms. Tesoro met Tinggian family matriarch Agaid while journeying around the Cordilleras in the early 1990s for revival work for the Katutubong Filipino Foundation.

“I immediately knew that Norma and her clan were special, as they have a very rich tradition which they pass on mainly through textile,” she said.

According to a release, the men take charge of putting together spools of homegrown cotton thread, dyeing the thread using local bark, seeds, leaves, and roots. Meanwhile, the women are proficient at weaving and embellishing the fabric with their iconic Tinggian animist symbols.

“Tinggians have a thing going for them,” said Ms. Tesoro, but then, people have to put their money where their mouth is and buy these fabrics to encourage the weavers and embroiderers to continue the tradition.

During the exchange, there were stalls of organic produce, native delicacies, antiques, handmade textile and accessories from Menor Usman of Cotabato, pots and plants, Patis Boutique products, natural remedies, and lots of handwoven items from Lumban and Abra.

Patis Tito was previously known as Kusina Salud. For inquiries, e-mail, visit, send a message through Facebook page Patis Tito Garden Cafe, or text 0998-544-3728 or 0906-443-9092.