Pineapple Express: on the road, in search of piña

Pina loom One rainy afternoon in Kalibo, a nice lady patiently explained to us the intricacies of piña (pineapple fiber). We have flown to Aklan, the northeastern tip of the island of Panay in the Visayas, which is the center of piña production. They make around 35,000 meters of the fabric per year. Piña is a beautiful cloth, both delicate and tough, handmade by generations of weavers from Aklan. Rhodora De La Cruz-Sulangi tells us that there are really two kinds of piña: the regular kind and the rarer liniwan, which is made of the finest fibers from the plant.

“During my grandmother’s time, they only used liniwan for weaving. Everything else was thrown away,” she says. (Coarser threads are called bastos, literally, “rude”in Filipino.) As we learn to appreciate the fine liniwan sample brought out for us, weavers in their homes spread out over nine baranggays continue to create the fabric considered prime material for the barong Tagalog, the traditional Filipino garment.

Pina fabric being woven

The production of piña fabric involves scraping the fibers, knotting, and weaving. To this day, everything is done by hand, with indigenous tools and materials. After weaving, the fabric is bleached using rice water or kalamansi juice. The Fiber Industry Development Authority of the Philippines defines good quality piña: the weave is tight, the strands of fiber are smooth, and the knotting is imperceptible.

Yolly, a weaver at the Handicraft of Aklan Multi-Purpose Cooperative, says it takes around eight hours to weave a meter of the fabric. Summer is the best time to weave, she adds. The cooperative has about seventy weavers, most of them working at home. There are a few embroiderers in Aklan, but the really intricate embroidery--an art for in itself--is done in other towns like Taal in Batangas or  Lumban, Laguna.

Hampco

The selection of piña and all its permutations in Kalibo is overwhelming. The market is primarily an export one—the Japanese love it and use the finest liniwan for their kimonos—although there is still a local demand for barong kits (usually four yards with embroidery), shawls, and yards more for bespoke clothing.

Aklan quality seal on pina fabric

Indeed, where would traditional Filipino formal wear be without piña? Nothing warms my heart more than the sight of a well dressed wedding party decked out in piña barongs and dresses. Sweating in satin and rhinestones isn't a good look in Philippine heat and humidity, but the crisp freshness of embroidered piña--it never goes out of style.

Chinese mestizos by Damian Domingo