What Does ‘Sustainable’ Mean for This Weaving Community?

Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.

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. For Narca, and for many women weavers, weaving extends beyond its economic function, forming an intrinsic part of her identity as a Filipino artisan and a woman.

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. 

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

Narca’s weaving has also woven her life, community, and family. While the craft provides her with a source of income, allows her to support her family, and increases her social mobility, weaving extends beyond its economic function and has formed a 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. 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,’ Narca said in Cebuano.

Lilia Narca weaves a textile for Anthill Fabric in Argao, Cebu. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
Lilia Narca weaves a textile for Anthill Fabric in Argao, Cebu. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.

‘Nobody was weaving anymore’

Anthill Fabric co-founder Anya Lim was exposed to weaving communities in her childhood through 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 travelled and learned, by visiting communities.’

‘We decided to come up with Anthill Fabric 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 becoming too old to continue the craft and the tradition was undervalued by younger generations. This motivated her to contribute to safekeeping the cultural heritage of her upbringing 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. 

CAPTION: Daisy Tolibas and Edita Borlasa upcycle old kimonos for Phinix Textile.  

Pamela Mejia, Phinix Textile’s founder and a clothing technology graduate from 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 owned a small clothing business since she was 17. She eventually shifted her small fashion business into a social enterprise, leading her to work on textile waste. 

Daisy Tolibas and Edita Borlasa upcycle old fabrics for Phinix Textile. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
Daisy Tolibas and Edita Borlasa upcycle old fabrics for Phinix Textile. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.

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. 

For the Anthill Fabric 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 Fabric also believes 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.

It was not easy maintaining a business of this nature. Mejia said that growing up as the eldest, she had to be very ‘madiskarte [resourceful]’ to support herself and her family. She admitted that she juggles a day job, and constantly applies for grants and opportunities to support Phinix Textile. She also recalled a time when she was challenged due to 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 Fabric 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 had planned for pop-up stores across the United States, Australia, and Dubai. Since everything was handmade, they had to prepare everything a year in advance, which ultimately did not materialise 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.’

Lilia Narca weaving a four-harness loom for Anthill Fabric. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
Lilia Narca weaving a four-harness loom for Anthill Fabric. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.

Building women-centred communities

What made Lim and Mejia power through the hardship was the community of women they work with and meet through 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 all over 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 Textile to the global scene as she met women and leaders from different Southeast Asian countries. 

Beyond the programs, what motivated Lim to persist was the resilience 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 weaving as a profession. Some even undervalued their talent and capabilities because they did not contribute to household income. However, these notions changed as their relationships 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 honouring 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 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 Fabric, 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 that put social and development work at the centre.

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 support from intimate market platforms such as Artefino, MaArte, and HABI Fair.

Mejia recently organised the THREAD Summit, a conference held in October 2022. 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, emphasised the local industry’s need for more government support. She compared the situation in the Philippines to Thailand’s booming sustainable fashion industry that is financed and supported by government programmes. 

‘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 organised, 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, there are limited funding opportunities available to local communities that support their initiatives. These are often centred 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 emphasised 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?’

Inside Anthill Fabric’s studio in Cebu. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
Inside Anthill Fabric’s studio in Cebu. Photograph by Geela Garcia, 2022.
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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Geela Garcia

Geela Garcia (b. 1998) is a Filipino freelance multimedia journalist based in Manila, Philippines. Her photographic work, which documents stories of women, food sovereignty, and the environment, aims to write history from the experience of its makers.

Her writing and photography have appeared in the South China Morning Post, The Philippine Star and Thomson Reuters Foundation, among others. She is a Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung Media Programme Asia fellow and is currently a student in the Diploma in Visual Journalism programme at the Asian Center for Journalism in the Ateneo de Manila University.

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