What ‘sustainable’ means for this weaving community

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Lilia Narca weaves a textile for Anthill Fabric at Argao, Cebu. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Lilia Narca, 57, has been weaving since she was eight. Coming from a family of weavers, she lives in Argao, a municipality three hours away from Cebu City that has had a rich traditional heirloom weaving culture since the 19th century.

Narca’s weaving has also woven her life, community, and family. While the craft gives her a source of income, allows her to uplift her family, and increases her social mobility, weaving extends beyond its economic function for it is part of her identity as a Filipino artisan and a woman.

“Because of this craft, I was able to buy a refrigerator, which makes it easier for me to store pork and fish, and that makes me very happy," Narca said in Cebuano. "I’m a proud weaver because it helps me contribute to my family. I enjoy the process of weaving and the designs I learn along the way."

She is one of the community weavers of ANTHILL Fabric, a sustainable fashion enterprise that employs and trains weavers while celebrating Filipino cultural heritage. ANTHILL has been working with various weaving communities across the country for over 10 years now.

Inside ANTHILL Fabric’s studio in Cebu. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

ANTHILL co-founder Anya Lim was exposed to weaving communities in her childhood because of her parents.

“Growing up, my mom would tell me about the communities she visits, so when she finally brought me to Banaue, it was like Disneyland because the stories came to life,” Lim said. “That’s how we traveled and learned, by visiting communities.”

“We decided to come up with ANTHILL because one of the weaving communities we visited in Banaue back then turned into a ghost town. Nobody was weaving anymore; it had a thriving community of weavers before, but when we returned, everyone left weaving to become tour guides. To me, that’s when the problem of cultural degradation felt urgent,” she added.

She noticed the same problem in different communities: weavers were too old and the craft was undervalued. This motivated her to contribute to safe keeping cultural heritage because she wanted her future children to experience a similar childhood.

“I didn’t want these fabrics to just be in coffee table books, and museum walls,” Lim said.

Meanwhile, in a small home studio in Pasig, seamstresses Daisy Tolibas and Edita Borlasa upcycle old Japanese kimonos to make laptop bags for the relaunch of Phinix Textile.

Daisy Tolibas and Edita Borlasa upcycle old kimonos for Phinix Textile. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Pamela Mejia, Phinix Textile’s founder, and a Clothing Technology graduate at the University of the Philippines, initially wanted to become a designer.

“As part of my research class in the university, we had to read ‘Just Fashion: Critical Cases on Social Justice in Fashion,’ where I read a lot of stories using fashion for good,” said Mejia.

“And that was such a novel idea, I took up clothing technology because I wanted to be a designer and I didn’t know that you could use fashion for good.”

A fashion enthusiast at a young age, Mejia has had a small clothing business since she was 17. She then eventually transformed her small fashion business into a social enterprise, leading her to work on textile waste.

Defining “sustainable fashion”

Mejia recalled that back when she was still starting in 2014, only a number of people could understand what “sustainable fashion” meant. Today, she defines it as an “innovative solution for fashion needs” which intersects with people, the planet, and responsible profit.

“When people hear sustainable fashion, they think it’s a charity business model but you have to be earning to keep the business afloat, that’s why we also think about profit,” explained Mejia.

“There are also brands who say they would donate a percentage of their sales to causes and then brand that as sustainability, but that’s not it,” added Lim.

Pamela Mejia of Phinix Textile discusses ideas to upcycle the retaso fabric. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

For the ANTHILL co-founder, sustainable fashion means integrating sustainability in different aspects of the business. Since they care about cultural sustainability, their goal is to preserve handloom traditions.

ANTHILL also knows that this means empowering women weavers and providing them with sustainable livelihoods. Since sustainability is connected to the environment, they also started looking through circularity, upcycling, and producing zero-waste weaves.

A close-up of the weaving process of ANTHILL Fabric. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Lilia Narca weaving a four-harness loom for ANTHILL fabric. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

It was not easy maintaining a business of this nature. Mejia said that growing up as the eldest, she had to be very “madiskarte” to support herself and her family. She admitted that she juggles a day job, and constantly applies for grants and opportunities to support Phinix. She also recalled a time when she was challenged because of being vocal about her political views.

“Our brand went viral because I spoke of injustice in government agencies working with social enterprises, and that meant a lot of decision-making as a leader,” said Mejia.

Lim, on the other hand, was on the brink of closing down ANTHILL due to the effects of the pandemic. The co-founder said that they had huge plans for celebrating their 10th year in the industry in 2020, and planned for pop-up stores across the United States, Australia, and Dubai. And since everything was handmade, they had to prepare everything a year in advance, which did not push through because of the pandemic.

“By 2021, I reached decision fatigue. I was exhausted at that time having to juggle mental health, leading the business, and thinking of the cash flow while everything was changing every minute.”

Building women-centered communities

What made the women power through the hardship was the community of women they work with and meet because of their advocacy. Both were cohorts of Deepening Impact of Women Activators or DIWA, a program of non-profit Ashoka, a network of leading social innovators in the world, in collaboration with S&P Global Foundation.

Lim said that joining the program gave her a safe space and a sense of support with fellow women innovators undergoing the same struggle during the pandemic, while for Mejia, it was an opportunity to bring Phinix to the global scene as she met women and leaders from different Southeast Asian countries.

The women weavers of ANTHILL Fabric in Argao, Cebu. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

A weaver works on the fabric. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

Beyond the programs, what made Lim persist was the resiliency and the stories of their artisans. She recalled that when they first met 10 years ago, most of their women partners were either drowning in debt or had no means of livelihood.

According to her, in the past, women did not see any potential in owning weaving as a profession. Some even undervalued their talents and capacities because they did not contribute to household income. However, these changed as their relationship as partners grew and their understanding of the craft deepened.

“They felt so empowered to be able to save money, pay off their debts, and invest in things that would give them a better life,” said Lim. “They would tell me stories about how they can enjoy meat and fish now because they were able to afford a refrigerator.”

“One even said that she bought a mattress and felt like a princess because she could finally sleep comfortably,” she added. “So it may be a little thing but they're very empowering for these women, they're able to support their husbands through their work, and that also meant their husbands honoring their capacity to make decisions.”

She even noted that the women grew to be more confident about themselves, which was reflected in the way they carried themselves.

“Now they put on lipstick, smile more, and laugh more,” said Lim. “They are more confident in being able to be in front of the camera and are proud of the work that they do. They gained that sense of pride and ownership about what they do.”

For ANTHILL, fashion is just a means to an end or an ingredient of positive change and sustainability. After all, their main goals are livelihood sustainability and cultural preservation, which put social and development work at the center.

Phinix Textile’s upcoming upcycled laptop bags are made of kimono and natural hemp fiber. Photo by GEELA GARCIA

State support for the local fashion industry

Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, both women are optimistic about the local fashion industry because of growing supportive and intimate market platforms such as Artefino, MaArte, and Habi fair.

Mejia is currently organizing the “THREAD summit,” a conference happening this October. The summit promotes social and environmental impact through the convergence of creativity, design, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The conference received over 100 applications across the Philippines, which for her is an indicator of the growing interest in fashion and sustainability.

Mejia, however, emphasized the local industry’s need for more government support. She compared the Philippines to Thailand and its booming sustainable fashion industry which is financed and supported by their government programs.

“They have a more flourishing fashion industry because their government supports their talents,” said Mejia. “A lot of the initiatives for sustainable fashion in the Philippines are privately organized so I wish we could have more coming from the State.”

Mejia said that while the handcraft and garment industries employ a lot of people, locally, there are limited funding opportunities that support their initiatives. These are often centered in places like Metro Manila, Davao, and Cebu.

Still, both said that this should not discourage aspiring sustainable fashion entrepreneurs from starting their businesses. However, they emphasized the importance of an entrepreneur’s intention when starting.

Lim said, “Ask yourself, why do you want to do what you want to do? Why in fashion? Why in textiles? Why is this important for you?”


Erratum: An earlier version of the story stylized ANTHILL as Anthill. We apologize for this oversight.