"In Mindanao, some women weave their dreams into textiles. They are dream-weavers," said the volunteer at the Museum of Philippine Economic History in the Filipino city of Iloilo. He pointed to a picture of white-and-red linear patterns woven on a black background. Intrigued, I asked for more details, but all the man told me was these women live by Lake Sebu.
The Philippines' second-largest island, Mindanao, was once a daunting destination. Years of armed conflict in the last decade kept the nation's southernmost island off most tourists' radars. But since the end of martial law in 2020, the island has cautiously opened its doors, allowing tourists willing to brave government warnings to come face to face with one of Asia's most beguiling traditions: dream-weaving.
For at least three centuries, the Indigenous T'boli people have passed down the practice of dream-weaving, or T'nalak, in rural villages around Lake Sebu, a turquoise lake nestled in the lush mountains of southern Mindanao. These textiles are made from natural fibres stripped from the stems of the banana-like abacá plant. Villagers believe that the goddess, Fu Dalu (the spirit of abacá), communicates with women by appearing in their dreams as an animal or human figure. Master dream-weavers then interpret these visions into patterns that usually take three to four months to weave. The process is done entirely by hand with all-natural ingredients, and while it's led by the master weaver, it is a collective effort by the community that is considered a sacred tribute to the goddess.
Dream-weaving only takes place in the Philippines' southernmost island, Mindanao (Credit: Kan Zhang)
The Lang Dulay T'nalak Weaving Centre, situated in a wooden T'boli longhouse (Gono Bong) 3km east of the lake in T'Bong village, is one of the main hubs of T'nalak. The centre's name honours the late master weaver Lang Dulay, the princess of T'boli and one of the most renowned dream-weavers. Today, the incumbent master weaver is Sebulan Dulay, Lang's daughter-in-law, who has been weaving for more than 60 years.
When I walked in, Sebulan stood up and greeted me by playing a melody on a row of gongs, while her son, Charlie, accompanied her on the drum. "It's our way of welcoming guests," she smiled. As Sebulan resumed weaving, Charlie, who runs the centre, explained how dream-weaving works.
The ability to transform dreams into patterns is considered a mysterious and specialised skill, so while everyone dreams, only a few select women can become dream-weavers. According to Charlie, this skill is always acquired under the guidance of Fu Dalu and takes years of practice.
Most young weavers only learn and weave the designs "seen" by master dream-weavers – especially Lang Dulay. The late master weaver left behind approximately 100 distinctive T'nalak patterns, each with its own name and story, from Gemayaw Logi, the legendary prince of T'boli, to the Sobobun, a small frog in Lake Sebu.
Inside the Lang Dulay T'nalak Weaving Centre, master weaver Sebulan interprets visions from the goddess Fu Dalu (Credit: Kan Zhang)
Only senior weavers, like Sebulan, can weave their own dreams. When I arrived, her latest creation had just been ordered by a Japanese customer. It featured a white bird (called the Hafak Bull Blila) encased in a red diamond-shaped border, with two symmetrical rectangular heads and a pair of outstretched wings, as if it were flying. In addition to overseas buyers, Sebulan's works are also acquired by wholesalers from Manila. The textiles can fetch up to 1,500 Philippine pesos (£22.83) per metre.
While the design process is full of mystery, the weaving process is easier to apprehend. Transforming the rough stems of abacá into woven threads is hard work. First, the fleshy material inside the stems is separated, dried, rubbed and combed to produce soft, resilient fibres. Charlie showed me a bundle of these fibres, each measuring about 2m long and resembling an elderly person's white hair. The bundle contained roughly 1,400 strands, which produces approximately 6m metres of T'nalak.
After the fibres are collected, they're woven and dyed. I watched as Sebulan wrapped black threads around bundles of straightened abacá fibre with machine-like speed and precision. T'nalak contains three colours: white symbolises purity, red represents blood and black signifies the soil. In addition to white abacá, the other two colours also derive from native plants. The red comes from the brownish-red roots of the loko tree, while the black is obtained by boiling the green leaves of the knalum tree for seven days, which turn them dark as ink.
As Sebulan worked, a teenage girl combed through the tangled bundles of abacá fibre to enhance their softness and durability and prepare them for weaving. Next to her, another lady was inserting weft threads into dyed warp threads on a loom that revealed the textile's intricate pattern.
Dream-weavers use the fibre of the banana-like abacá plant (Credit: lisyl/Alamy)
The practice of T'nalak includes some stringent taboos. For instance, as a show of respect to Fu Dalu, the female weavers and their husbands are banned from having sex during the extensive weaving process. But while only women can be dream-weavers, men are involved, too.
Men are often responsible for planting and stripping the abacá and flattening the newly woven fabric. To do so, they fix a cowrie shell to one end of an abacá stem pole and link the other end to the roof as a hinge, pushing on the pole to apply pressure on the fibre with the shell.
There are roughly 70 households in T'Bong village, and Charlie told me there are approximately 25 skilled weavers and around a dozen apprentices. According to the Museum of Philippine Economic History, dream-weaving used to be widespread around Lake Sebu. But after exploring several other villages around the lake, I didn't meet a single family still weaving, which suggests this time-honoured tradition may be fading.
As Mindanao has begun to reopen, resorts have started popping up along the lake. Many are adorned with T'boli and T'nalak-related decorations, yet after asking staff members at three different resorts, no one knew the stories behind them. In a lakeside shop selling T'nalak to tourists, a local woman couldn't name any of the patterns she sold.
Dream-weaving contains three colours, which are all derived and dyed from natural fibres (Credit: Kan Zhang)
However, there are locals who are committed to keeping T'boli traditions alive. Since 1995, Maria Todi, a T'boli cultural ambassador, has been running the Lake Sebu School of Living Traditions in a lake-side longhouse. In addition to the weaving taught by another master weaver, she teaches T'boli music and dance to local children.
Maria Todi has also been documenting T'boli's various cultural traditions, including T'nalak. When we spoke at her school, she explained that these precious textiles were once used as currency, and could even replace cows or water buffalo as dowries at weddings. She said that as the T'boli rapidly assimilated into modern society, the T'nalak, like many of their other traditions, lost its practical value, receding into a purely cultural symbol that is in danger of being forgotten.
"The reason we established the School of Living Traditions [is] in order to revive, to educate children and to let them understand, when our culture dies, our existence dies," she said.
Maria Todi is documenting and attempting to save various T'boli traditions (Credit: Kan Zhang)
According to Maria Todi, T'boli culture shouldn't just be presented to tourists, but practised at home. "In the past, my students sometimes perform at the resorts for money, but I don't allow it anymore," she explained. "Tourists simply glance at the show while eating, they can learn nothing from that."
This concern also extends to T'nalak. To those who don't know its origin, it's nothing more than a piece of cloth. But for those aware of how centuries of T'boli women have sought to record their most fleeting visions, these time-honoured textiles stand as an enduring testament to a culture and people who see our world and the spirit world differently.
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