One of the recognizably different and interesting elements of T’boli culture is their Abaca fabric known as T’nalak woven by their Dreamweavers.

In my recent visit to Lake Sebu, we were made to visit one of the Schools of Living Traditions dedicated to the preservation of the ancient art of T’nalak weaving. The center which was managed by the late Lang Dulay is located at Sitio Tukolefa, Lamdalag, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. The center serves as the training venue to ensure the transfer and continuity of this unique living tradition.


the beautiful pattern found in any T’nalak fiber were created consciously by the weaver without using any printed design or pattern relying solely on the mental image

The visit to the center allowed me to listen to the history of T’nalak weaving. Roy Ungkal, a Tboli guide lead us to appreciate the intricacy of this ancient craft.

Interestingly, T’boli women do the t’nalak without the usage of tracing patterns or guides, preferably, they rely on a mental image of the figures. Dubbed as the “dream weavers” the T’boli women believe that the patterns are gifts on them through their own dreams by “Fu Dalu,” the spirit of the abaca. The designs they had from their dreams are handed down for generations to generations. However,  not every t’nalak weaver knows every design. Some of the designs are kept within the family of those who originated it.


Tboli woman tying the abaca fiber before the dyeing process

Being into a handicraft business, I was fascinated by the very complicated process employed in producing the fiber.

To produce a Tnalak fiber, abaca trunks (Abaca is one of the species of banana native to the Philippines)  are stripped into strands pulling the stem from the stripper, separating the flesh from the abaca fiber. After which, the fibers are combed to remove the sap to avoid the darkening of the strands. The fibers then are hung from a house beam and combed with the fingers where the weaver selects and classify the fibers according to their thickness. During the selection of the fibers, the whiter and finer threads found in the inner stalks are separated from the coarser ones.

To make the fibers soft and manageable for weaving, the abaca strands are squeezed, using a motion like washing clothes. The fibers then are spread on a beam and air dried inside the house.

Once dried, the fibers are painstakingly connected from end to end by tying tiny knots.  The fibers then are bundled together by winding the threads around a bamboo warp frame. It can take two weeks for a weaver to be able to complete the standard length needed for the T’nalak.


this local plant is used to color the abaca fiber for the T’nalak

The traditional colors found in a Tnalak fiber are the black, red and natural color of the abaca which is almost white.  To color the abaca strands, natural dyes produced by the vegetation around the area used by the Tboli women. No artificial or chemicals are being used to color the fiber.

To dye the abaca, the tied fibers are cooked for an average of three weeks to achieve the desired hue of color. After which the tied fibers are removed and rinsed in running water through a stream until the water runs clear.


The backstrap loom is used to weave the dried abaca fiber.  The backstrap loom is a form of horizontal two-bar or two- beamed loom where one bar is attached to the bamboo beam of the T’boli longhouse and the second beam, or the backstrap, is attached to the weaver’s lower back.


the traditional colors found in any T’nalak cloth include black red and white

One observation I made during our visit at the weaving center is the structure of the house which is in rectangular shape specifically built for the production of the t’nalak. Because the length of the t’nalak can exceed over 10–meters, a long horizontal structure is needed. In addition, the t’nalak must be woven in a cool area or the fibers will snap. This is one of the reasons why most T’nalak weavers are found on the mountain side of the area where the climate is much cooler. The weaving process can take around 2 to six weeks depending on the complexity of the design.

After the t’nalak has been fully woven, the fabric is thoroughly washed in a river so that the entire piece can be stretched following the river flow. After washing and air drying, the t’nalak is then beaten repeatedly with a hard and round wooden stick in order to flatten and smoothen the knots.


the cowrie shell with a hole brought about by continuous rubbing on the T’nalak fiber is a testimony of hard work employed in each piece of Tnalak sold in the market

The final phase of producing the t’nalak involves shining the surface with a cowrie shell. This shell is attached to one end of a bamboo stick with the other end attached to a hole in the ceiling of the longhouse to help apply additional pressure to the procedure. This task involves a strong body, which is why it is done mostly by men. The cowrie shell is firmly rubbed repeatedly on the t’nalak in order to flatten and produce a nice gloss.


the Bloggers and Tour Operators  together with the vibrant personnel of the  Tourism Department of South Cotabato at Manlilikha ng Bayan Center

According to our guide, Roy Ungkal, there are actually two types of weavers found in Lake Sebu: those that simply weave and those that dream and make the design. Though only a few are chosen to be dreamweavers, all members of the community are involved in the weaving process. It is the men who do the abaca harvesting, stripping, and shining, while only women are allowed to do the actual weaving.

One interesting trivia I discovered during my visit, there are certain designs which require the weaver never to engaged in an intimate marital activity in the entire duration of the weaving process. This is to protect the purity of the design .

T’nalak weaving has indeed formed an integral part of a T’boli life. Many of the Tboli beliefs and traditions are expressed to weaving.  This is why I took the opportunity to bring home with me a  piece of T’nalak as a memento of my first visit. The Tinalak fiber which I intend to hang on our living room will always remind me of the beautiful story that goes which such an amazing  piece that is truly Tboli.


the author with the T’nalak weavers and his souvenir

Contact Details:

Sitio Tukolefa, Lamdalag
Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, Philippines

For more information, you may contact:

2F Left Wing, South Cotabato Gymnasium & Cultural Center
Alunan Avenue, City of Koronadal, South Cotabato
TeleFax No.: (083) 228 3447
Em-mail: landofthedreamweavers.acts@gmail.com


  1. Thank you for this blog! My husband Alvin J. Hower (Peace Corps Volunteer 1969-1974) is writing his memoir about his experiences in South Cotabato, and as an employee of Santa Cruz Mission. He is citing your blog. The book will be published by Readers’ Digest in 2020. We’d like to give credit to another volunteer, who played a big part in reviving the dying art in the early 1970s and finding a market for them outside of South Cotabato. Hope to hear from you. I live in Rhode Island, USA.

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