How a Kalinga designer weaves art and business together

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Irene Bawer-Bimuyag is a designer, weaver, and conservationist, driven by her passion to recontextualize the weaving tradition passed down by her mother in a contemporary sensibility. Photo by RUEL BIMUYAG

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Irene Bawer-Bimuyag, the founding mother of the art enterprise Kalinga Weaving, started weaving when she was in grade three. Coming from the third generation of weavers in her town in Kalinga, she was taught by her mother and brought up in a village that today still serves as a wellspring of rich oral traditions. According to Bawer-Bimuyag, everybody in their village weaves, and all the girls learn from their mothers. “I grew up in a [family of weavers],” she says. “[There are six of us] and we are all weavers. We are all active.”

In 1999, she started working with the artist BenCab as part of her transformative experiences in Baguio. Bawer-Bimuyag says she was greatly inspired by the national artist’s use of bold colors. For the next five years, she developed her own designs while honing her creative eye, exposed to the vivid hues of the Baguio art community.

Today, her fruitful life as a designer, weaver, and conservationist is driven by her passion to recontextualize the weaving tradition passed down by her mother in a contemporary sensibility. Bawer-Bimuyag understands that weaving is not a stagnant art form, in the same way that culture is free-flowing and adapting. The fiber practice is deeply ingrained in the Kalingas’ way of living, that it becomes a culture in itself, with its own profound purpose in community life. This intuition breeds Bawer-Bimuyag’s strong sense of responsibility, which motivates her to continue her art as a way of expressing the voice and identity of her people, while helping her culture adapt to the double-edged tides of modernization and market forces. For her, it’s all about balance.

Around Bawer-Bimuyag, the weaving landscape of the Philippines is going through a metamorphosis. Among fiber and fabric artists across the country, she benefits from current endeavors to bring our natural fibers to the global market, initiated by institutions such as Habi, the Philippine Textile Council. Last weekend at Glorietta, the council organized the 6th installment of Likhang Habi, a market fair showcasing Philippine woven products, with a focus on advocating the return to pure cotton. As the group encourages the planting of cotton in the country, weavers, with their new designs, can get a chance to become more competitive in the global textile market.

Amid bustling booths and lively performances, CNN Philippines Life was able to talk to Bawer-Bimuyag — in between transactions with customers — about the community she grew up in, dealing with globalization, and how she feels about the pure cotton advocacy. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

The Kalingas employ a backstrap method, which is a traditional way of weaving. Photo by RUEL BIMUYAG

You grew up in the village of Mabilong in Lubuagan, Kalinga. Is weaving there still very close to its traditional form?

Yes, it’s the weaving center [of] Kalinga, that’s our village. [Lubuagan] is a small town of [about] 10,000 [people], and everybody is doing weaving. [There’s] a very strong touch of traditional patterns. We’re still doing it right now, [in a very traditional way]. It’s [the] backstrap weaving. It’s a very rich tradition. Even young women [still practice it today]. It’s a mother and daughter learning [experience].

What is your creative process in weaving? I understand you also take inspiration from your husband’s [Ruel Bimuyag] trips around Cordillera.

We are working together. I think it’s the touch of my roots, because I am rooted in my heritage, so it’s really this inspiration where I get my [creativity from]. I am creative because of this; I am inspired by our landscape, our environment, our culture. Community life is very strong in our village so that’s why we always work together. We consider weaving as an intrinsic part of a community way of life. It’s always a part of our lives. We recreate creation. We put something more [to something] to make it more beautiful. I also get inspiration from my travels, and especially my husband — we work together because he also gets inspiration from different places because he’s a tour guide. He [would bring] home souvenirs where I get inspiration to do my weaving, my designs.

When you were younger, what were the first pieces you weaved?

Before I came to where I am with my designs today, I was weaving simple things, like a belt, [or] our traditional tapis. I started with the basic weaving. But now, I learn a lot from our weavers, that’s why I’m working with them. Mainly for now, I do [more] designing and embroidery. I do more on that side because I have a family now so it lessened the weaving thing [for me]. But I mainly do the designing — I give the patterns to the weavers I’m working with.

Among the dominant hues in traditional Kalinga weaving patterns are red, black, and yellow. The colors of Bawer-Bimuyag's designs are more brightened to "give more life to her work." Photo from HABI THE PHILIPPINE TEXTILE COUNCIL/FACEBOOK

What kind of thread did you use to weave with back then?

I’m depending on what kind of thread comes in, like polycotton. It [also] depends on the cotton that comes in. First, we [use] polycotton, [while still being able to] do very beautiful things in weaving. But now that Habi and the Philippine Textile Council are [advocating] for pure cotton, they give us the chance to weave cotton now. We had a natural material before but, of course, we cannot get it now. There’s a plant, we call it buteg before in our place, it’s from a tree. We [would] make our own thread. But now, it’s no more. So it’s good that they are advocating this and we are trying to [get] back [to] our natural materials. Last summer, we [started] weaving with pure cotton.

Is it easier for Kalinga weavers to use pure cotton?

Yeah, of course. They [the weavers] are very happy because they have a chance to weave with cotton, and it’s really nice.

It’s good that they are providing us with pure cotton. Sayang eh, if we don’t have a good material but we do beautiful and very [promising designs], if our material is not powerful ... so yeah, we can do more with cotton.

Some may say that a number of our traditions are dying. But weaving is very much alive and continues to evolve. As an art rooted in tradition, how is weaving adapting to current times?

We cannot get away from the globalization that we are in now. But still, I think we are fortunate in our village because we have a sense of community life. I always say “community life” because we still do the practices. Our rituals are still there, so it’s not the culture that’s dying, or the weaving that’s dying, because the mothers instill to [this] generation that we’re still doing this. And it’s always part of our lives, so you cannot say that it’s dying. For me, the culture will not die unless they stop doing it, but in our case in our village, it’s still very strong. The mothers make a point that their children will continue this.

It’s my passion to do weaving and continue what my mother wants to do. She’s a weaver and she wants to do this in her life, but she’s sick, she [can’t weave] now, so I want to continue her passion. That’s very very important to me — the continuity of our community life, our culture.

Kalinga Weaving's booth at the Likhang Habi market fair. Photo from HABI THE PHILIPPINE TEXTILE COUNCIL/FACEBOOK

Looking at traditional Kalinga patterns, you integrate a sort of contemporary touch with your designs. How have your designs changed through the times?

It’s more creative that, for example, I get inspiration from my travel experiences. I am open with everything, I am open with art. Everything that I observe, everything that I see, I put it in my art, in the weaving that I’m doing. I make sure that the colors are brightened because [the dominant colors in our more traditional designs] are only red, black, yellow, and green, so what I do is I brighten, I put more color in it. I give more life to my work.

But still, in my work, I maintain the traditional pattern. But I switch more [with] the colors. My inspiration is nature and the environment. The motifs that I gather are from our house, the landscape, everything.

What I’m doing [now] is ... it’s more [about] how you feel what your client wants. Not everybody wants traditional. But still, the capital of my designs are [their] traditional [pattern], [since] everybody’s looking for it, but I give a twist so the modern [client] will also [appreciate it]. There’s always a balance.

So you mostly do designing now, and you also handle the business side of your work. Do you think weavers have to be entrepreneurs now more than ever?

Yes, we always do a lot of communication so [the weavers] understand what we’re doing. We work together on this, it’s more on collaborating. I’m open with them about this. I think it’s very important to be working together. I’m doing this for them, also.

How are the cultural institutions, especially the government, supporting you in preserving your art? Do you think you’re getting enough support?

No, actually, they’re not giving any support. But I like it that way. My husband and I don’t like [it] if the government will interrupt ... We don’t like that. It’s better to do it on our own. It’s our effort, our passion to do this. No need to have the government support us.