Founded initially to preserve traditional weaving practices and textiles, HABI The Philippine Textile Council eventually became familiar with the plight of weavers in far-flung communities and now has adopted a cotton advocacy to revive the use of cotton yarns in the handloom weaving industry.

HABI Chairperson Maribel Ongpin has been fervently working across the archipelago not only to promote local textile products but to persuade as well the weavers to go back to cotton. Hence, annually they hold Likhang HABI Market Fair to give small and medium-sized enterprises an opportunity to showcase their crafts and products in Manila. Moreover, 90 per cent of the proceeds of the fair goes to the vendors and HABI's cut are all invested to their efforts to preserve, promote, and modernise the Philippine weaving industry.

"One of our big projects on the pipeline already, is to bring in a cotton micro-spinning facility with the help of the Department of Trade and Industry," Ongpin says. With the combined efforts of HABI and the Department of Agriculture in the recent years, cotton production in the country has increased after it went down in the previous decades. However, the battle is far from over and Ongpin believes that the micro-spinning facility in Leon, Iloilo will help resolve the issue. 

"It will really improve the industry in the sense that the farmers will be well-compensated," she says. HABI has been purchasing cotton from its partner-farmers for the past years but with the micro-spinning facility, it will increase the supply and ease the access of local weavers rather than buying it from Manila, which can be expensive. It eliminates the problem of weavers buying cheap synthetic cotton from nearby stores, which does not command a high price.

HABI's efforts in this endeavour also extends to their collaboration with Ilocos-based PHILFIDA (Philippine Fiber Development Authority). In Luzon, Ilocos is at the forefront of cotton-growing industry and supplies its local weavers up to the Cordilleras. "We may not have enough number of cotton plantations but it's growing," Ongpin says. Moreover, by working with cooperatives, weavers can now buy a kilo of cotton less than half the price and with no shipping costs. "Therefore, they will have the fibre that they want, they will be able to command a better price because it's natural."

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Woven Voyages: HABI's colourful journey

HABI was established under the auspices of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, of which Ongpin was a former President. In 2009, Manila hosted the 2nd ASEAN Traditional Textile Symposium but prior to this, the country has no governing body for the traditional textile industry. "They came to me and asked if we can organise it here and so I said yes. National Museum lent its facilities for the symposium and we encountered delegates from Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia... after the symposium, we decided to establish our own textile society. We've gone from strength to strength."

From its first market fair with only 12 businesses, this year it is showcasing more than 80 businesses. "I think what we have done is we brought the consciousness of how much we have of Philippine textiles—colourful, varied, and from every region. Then also to convince people to buy local, keep their Filipino identity."

Indeed, no matter how big the local cotton production will be in the future and how many weavers market their products, the real challenge is on sales. "We encourage people to buy local products by saying that it is natural fibre, purely and proudly Filipino, and helps the economy all around. It reverberates. It has a multiplier effect."

Ongpin explains that by supporting local products, you help local weavers support their standards of living, their children's education, as well as their sense of satisfaction.

Another challenge in the industry is that younger generations of some weaving families tend to choose their own type of career or business. "Well the best encouragement for them to keep their craft is to patronise them," she says. Ongpin further shares her encounter with a weaver in Aklan who inspired more people in their community to join her business, an example of how hardwork helps in the preservation of tradition.

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Above Maribel Ongpin

Philippines not only has a very rich weaving tradition and history but is also blessed with products revered in abroad. The world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, houses our very own piña cloth. It is because piña used to be given as a royal gift to the King of Spain and a social status for the affluent families at the time. Today, we are gaining recognition in the international market with world-class designers and brands: Jeannie Goulbourn, Filip+Inna, EN Barong, to name a few. Christian Louboutin even released a bag collection using Philippine traditional weaving patterns.

"We are pushing now the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to lobby UNESCO to declare piña, t'nalak, and the abaca as UNESCO heritage fabrics," Ongpin says. "Indonesians have batik. It's our turn."

Born and raised in Baguio, Ongpin already has a penchant for traditional textiles and it may not be sheer coincidence that she was tapped to create the Philippine Textile Council. "Before, we Filipinos used to take traditional textiles for granted. It was already a dying industry because we have become too modern. Now, with HABI's efforts we are going back."

The Likhang Habi market fair will take place at the Activity Area of the Glorietta Mall in Ayala Center, Makati City on October 12 to 14, 2018.

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