Armed with backstrap looms, the Yakan intertwine an array of brightly colored threads to create remarkable geometric-patterned textiles. And you can witness this intricate process firsthand at Zamboanga City’s two-hectare Yakan Weaving Village.
The Yakan mainly reside in Basilan but due to religious and political conflicts in the area during the 1970s, they fled and took refuge in Zamboanga City. The unrest, however, led to the revival of Yakan weaving since the tribe had no means to sustain their daily needs.
“As rural folks, we had a hard time adjusting to the city. We were used to hunting and fishing. So they, especially the women, started to revive the craft,” says Sergio Ilul, current tribal leader of the Yakan.
Tennun is the Yakan word for woven cloth and pagtetennun is the act of weaving. This inimitable craft led to the Yakan being honored as one of the finest weavers in the Philippines.
Behind each strand of Tennun
An easily transportable backstrap loom is utilized by the Yakans, its size depending on the type of Tennun to be woven. A weaver would place on her waist an Awit, or a belt-like cloth connected to the loom’s front beam to keep the threads in place. The Deddug or warp beam, on the other end, faces the weaver, suspended diagonally like a seesaw from the ceiling or any higher platform.
The weaver starts her masterpiece by leaning back and pulling the threads one at a time using Sud dendam, a comb-like apparatus made of bamboo.Different colors of thread traditionally made from dyed pineapple and abaca fibers are placed on each row of the loom and it’s up to the weaver to decide what to create. This process of mapping out patterns and choosing threads is called Pagpeneh.
The Yakan exhibit weaving techniques wielded only by experts. The complexity of pagtetennun is divided into different categories. To name a few, these are Seputangan, Bunga-sama, Sinulu’an, Inalaman, Pussuk Labbung, and Pinatupan.
Seputangan is the most intricate of all and formed without any guide, only through memory. It is widely renowned for its distinct multicolored five to eight mata-mata (eye) or dinglu (diamond) patterns. Finished products are never identical and differences are visible in the distribution of colors and patterns.
Seputangan cloth is considered to be the most expensive part of a Yakan woman’s attire, considering the craftsmanship put into its production. It is traditionally worn as a headpiece or belt.
The Yakan are inspired by the pure beauty of the environment that surrounds them, and nature is unmistakably represented in each textile. The Peneh Kenna–kenna, for example, is inspired by a fish while Peneh Sawe–sawe, imitates snakes. Peneh Dawen–dawen, meanwhile, is inspired by foliage.
A day in a life of a Yakan Weaver
Evelynda Otong is a fourth-generation Yakan weaver, cultural advocate, and a mother of 3. Pagtetennun has always been a part of her. Otong started with 2-inch Tennun coasters and she remembers relying on her talent to earn an allowance for school. She mastered the art of tennun at the age of 7 and to this day, the majority of her time is spent weaving.
After accomplishing house chores, Otong starts to weave at around 9 A.M. or 10 A.M., “By 4:30 P.M., I make sure to pause so I can also relax and rest my hands.” Not a day in her life has she managed to let go of pagtetennun except when she’s pregnant or due to respect and beliefs, when a relative passed on.
Given her love for the craft, Otong formed Tuwas Yakan Weavers, a group that focuses on preserving Yakan traditions and nurturing the 7th generation of weavers.
This includes her nieces and daughters, even her youngest, Princess Kelly. “At the age of two, I already taught Princess. And now at 5, she knows how to weave coasters by herself,” Otong shares.
A heartwarming and special mother and daughter bonding, Otong and Princess would weave together. “They show interest in the craft,” the mother says. “Whenever I weave, my children would sit beside me and they are fascinated by it.”
Otong and her works have been featured in several magazines but international recognition started when HABI Textile Council, an organization that aims to preserve and promote Philippine textiles invited her to indigenous weaving exhibits in Manila.
For her, the greatest achievement by far is when she got the opportunity to be part of the 2019 London Fashion Week. “Tennun is ours. It has become our identity. And it’s my advocacy to showcase Tennun to the rest of the world,” Otong proudly states.
These opportunities continue to inspire Yakan weavers and allow them to encourage the younger generation to keep their culture and traditions alive.
There are 45 families residing in Yakan Weaving Village and since the entire tribe has been fully vaccinated, they reopened the village for tourists last week of November 2020.
Pre-pandemic, the Yakan tribe would welcome tourists as soon as they are finished with their breakfast, as early as 6 A.M.
“Everybody was paralyzed, we lost our source of income. Then someone asked if we can create Yakan masks. So we catered to that request and that’s when it started. Until such time other people started to patronize. We even got an order for 5,000 masks. So woven masks became a huge help during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ilul shares.
Also, online selling has become part of how the Yakan tribe is sharing their craft with the world. “In fact, one of my nieces is able to sell Tennun outside the country. She gets orders from places as far as New York, California, Australia,” Ilul adds.
Wearable statement piece
The simplest Tennun is sold at Php 500 per meter. Some of the Yakan woven items you can buy at the village are masks for Php 100 to 150; Pillowcase for Php 450 and table runners at Php 700.
A Yakan woven sling bag costs Php 380 to Php 500 while earrings cost Php 80. Summer hats for Php 1,200; Jackets for Php 5,000; Pencil skirts for Php 2,500; Wallets for Php 75; Cosmetic pouch for Php 180 and shawl for Php 1,800.
Weaving plays an essential role on how Philippine indigenous tribes get to creatively express their culture. For the Yakan, it has also turned into a source of livelihood as travelers start to seek cultural tourism, where tourists can gain a better understanding of the locals, the community’s customs, language, and beliefs that are far from what they are familiar with.
The Yakan community is innately warm and has always been welcoming. Immersing yourself in their colorful world will allow you to appreciate one of the Philippines’ indigenous local treasures and the deep origin of why they are recognized as one.
Help the community thrive and sustain its traditions by taking home a wearable art piece.
How to visit
A 12 minute ride from Zamboanga International Airport, Yakan Weaving Village is located at Labuan-Limpapa National Road. You may take a tricycle for Php 50 or a jeepney at Php 12. Just tell the driver to drop you off at Yakan Village.
Explore Zamboanga City responsibly by making sure that you comply with the province’s health and safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Ensure that you have acquired travel authority at https://s-pass.ph/ prior trip. Bring a copy or screenshot of this along with your vaccination card and valid ID upon arrival.
For the latest travel information about Zamboanga, you may visit their official website or Facebook page. You may also review updated safety protocols and requirements on Philippine destinations at www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel