If you live or have been in the town of Baguio in Benguet, you have probably heard of or visited the hand-woven crafts of Narda, a Benguet institution. The company is named after its founder, Leonarda “Narda” Capuyan, an Igorot entrepreneur who helped popularize Cordillera fabrics locally and abroad in the 1970s.
Part of Narda’s secret to staying relevant through the decades is her willingness to experiment with design while adhering to Cordillera weaving traditions. “My mom was able to create contemporary designs that can be used by most households and most women and men,” says Lucia Capuyan-Catanes, Creative Director and Head of Research and Development at Narda. “We try to keep improving our products and improving the design so that people are always interested in buying them.”
One of the company’s latest products is Narda’s Naturals, a line of products dyed naturally using fabrics made from local fibers. Although the line was launched in 2016, Capuyan-Catanes says the idea was actually hinted at as early as 2003.
The company worked with the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI), which sent representatives to the weaving mill to find out which local plants they could use as dyes and train them in the dyeing process. They settled on turmeric, which gave an orange tint; cogon, which has yellowed the fabric; and mahogany, which came out brown. Annatto (achuete) and indigo will later be added to this list.
The plants used for the dyes are cultivated or foraged around Narda’s farm in Benguet. They focus on indigo, in particular, due to a lack of supply in the Philippines. The varieties they are currently cultivating are native to Laos and Taiwan. “Our goal over the past two years is to plant, plant and plant until we have enough,” says Capuyan-Catanes.
Narda’s is also working with the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA), which has put them in touch with local fiber suppliers such as the cotton producers of Ilocos. “We buy the fiber from the farmers through IFAD and it is sent to Manila to be processed at the PTRI to make yarn,” explains Capuyan-Catanes. “PTRI mixes it with abaca or pineapple fiber, so we have different types of yarns in different blends: abaca cotton, pineapple cotton. “
Using natural dyes is more difficult and expensive than using chemical dyes. “It’s a lot of work, especially compared to using chemical or even eco-friendly dyes, where you weigh the powder and mix it into your recipe to get the colors you want,” says Capuyan-Catanes.
With natural dyes, the process is more complex because it starts with the farmer, who grows and harvests the plant, or in the case of mahogany and cogon, with the foragers.
Then the plant materials must be transformed into dyes. This may involve cutting or pounding them, then boiling and straining them before using them to dye yarn. About five kilograms of turmeric, for example, is needed to be processed in this way to dye 30 to 40 yards of fabric. The cogon, on the other hand, should be simmered for three hours to achieve the desired color. They also use natural acidifying agents such as mangoes and tamarind to fix the dye to the yarn. “It’s more expensive, but if you’re trying to make a living, it’s also good because you employ more people. “
A valued clientele
It seems the 13-year wait to launch the line was worth it, as, especially nowadays, green living has become mainstream. “Now more people are aware of what they buy, how they are made, their effects on the environment, which has opened up more markets for us,” says Capuyan-Catanes. “Even though it’s more expensive, it also gives us more attention.
That said, people who buy Narda’s Naturals still tend to be specialist, as more and more people are still drawn to the company’s products that use conventional dyes that are brighter and more environmentally friendly. “At least that broadens our market,” says Capuyan-Catanes.
Because everything is handmade and hand-woven, no two items are the same. And because it all depends on the harvest, a regular supply of dye is not always guaranteed.
“We tell (to buyers) in advance that we cannot do the exact same thing… There (will be) slight changes,” says Capuyan-Catanes. “We only accept what we can do. We cannot promise… We are limited to what we can (produce).
Narda’s next project is to produce its own fiber. “It will really give people more jobs,” Capuyan-Catanes said, adding that although the company sells a lot of fashion items, Narda’s main goal is to produce and sell textiles. “We want to mass produce textiles for clothing designers (and) household items. (Our goal is) to get more clothing manufacturers to incorporate hand-woven fabric into their lines. (Then) we can just keep weaving and weaving and weaving.
And if they can do it in a sustainable way, even better. “We really need to think about how we will protect the earth for our future children and grandchildren,” Capuyan-Catanes says, “We all need to participate.”
Photos courtesy of Narda’s Handwoven Arts and Crafts
Learn more about farming and gardening at agriculture.com.ph
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