Author: Mary Lou Murillo

In celebration of the third annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

One of the finest textile traditions to come out of the Philippines, refined by weavers there for generations, the production of piña cloth endures today as a testament to the creativity and virtuosic skill of the artisans in the archipelago.

The pineapple (Ananas comostas), indigenous to Mexico and Brazil, was brought to the Philippines in the 16th century by Spanish conquerors and began to thrive in the lush hills and valleys of Aklan Province on Panay, one of the smaller central islands that make up the Visayas. The environment there was conducive to the growth of the leafy pineapple plant, a member of the Bromeliaceae family, and named piña (cone shaped) by the Spanish. Pineapple became an important agricultural product and the cloth produced from it eventually became a recognizable symbol, as one of the “national fabrics” of the Philippines. [1]
The method of producing piña cloth is labor intensive, beginning with the harvesting and preparation of the material used to make piña threads. The threads used for weaving are comprised of the fine, white inner fibers of the pineapple plant leaves. The leaves are pulled from the plant after about 18 months, when the average length of a leaf is around 24 inches. After scraping away the coarse outer fibers from the upper part of the leaf with a broken dish or coconut shell, the fine inner fibers, called linawan, are collected and then beaten, washed and dried. The strands are meticulously knotted together one by one in order to create long continuous lengths of single-ply untwisted thread suitable for weaving. [2] The knotted yarns are wound onto skeins and then sold as piña thread to be woven traditionally on a treadle loom, historically by a select group of women.

From the raw material of a spiny leaf, the most beautiful fabrics can be produced; the look of a piña cloth fabric is sheer, and crisp yet with a diaphanous quality. The woven fabrics are often embellished with embroidery in cotton and silk threads, as well as with dyeing and supplementary weft decoration. Due to the extremely fine and fragile fibers, the textiles most commonly made of piña fabric include flat and un-seamed textiles such as collar-shawls, or pañuelos, kerchiefs, handkerchiefs and garments like women’s blouses and the outer shirt for men, including the iconic barong tagalog. [3]

This long embroidered scarf, or kerchief, is dated circa 1770 by an archival letter accompanying the accession. The letter details the gifting of the textile to a noblewoman in that year. It was hand-woven in plain weave and decorated with cotton and silk blend embroidery. The embroidery and drawnwork, or calado, about the scalloped border depict flower and foliate motifs, and two large motifs of flowers emanating from a vase appear at each end. A fine piece such as this may have been worn by the elite woman, like a veil, draped or folded over the head and adorned with a gold comb, or carried over the shoulders or arms like shawls in European fashion. [4]

Drawing of a woman with a white embroidered scarf over her head, and a long, full black and white plaid skirt.

Portrait of a Spanish mestiza of Manila, dressed for church with a veil over her head. Nineteenth century (Artist unknown), from “Pina” by Lourdes R. Montinola, p.73.

[1-2] Davis, Marian L., “Pina Fabric of the Philippines”. In Arts of Asia. Wanchai, Hong Kong: Arts of Asia Publications Limited, July-August 1991, p. 126
[3-5] Montinola, Lourdes R., Piña. (Manila: Amon Foundation, 1991), p. 69, pp. 83-84

Mary Lou Murillo is Museum Specialist for Textiles at the American Museum of Natural History.

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