In our first blog post, we did a short introduction to Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative fashion. We discovered through our research that regenerative practices in the farming of natural fibres for textiles and ultimately garments can potentially have a positive environmental impact. To continue the conversation we’re exploring the topic of natural fibre farming in the Philippine context.
As a fashion brand that aims to celebrate Philippine culture through our work, it was only natural for us to explore how we could use Philippine natural fibres to create our products. The Philippines’ is blessed with a variety of natural resources including plants that provide the fibres needed to create textiles for clothing and other fashion accessories.
Through our research, we discovered Abaca, a natural fibre that is very special and unique to the Philippines. The more we learned, the more fascinated we became, and that’s why we decided to start with Abaca as a core material in our collections.
Our journey to create textiles and garments made of Abaca led us to discover that there are a lot of barriers to processing these fibres locally to create a wide variety of yarn and ultimately textiles for garments and other fashion products (will share more in a future blog post!).
Despite that, we were adamant to use this material to create authentic Philippine textiles and garments from fibre to finish. After years of research, we are proud to have successfully created a collection of garments made with this material.
FARMING IN THE PHILIPPINES
Due to a variety of factors(1), the Philippines is dominated by smallholder farms. In 2012, the average farm size was down to 1.29 hectares(2). The agriculture sector in the Philippines is a major source of employment(3) but a huge proportion of workers in the sector live in poverty. In recent years, there has been a growing decline in employment within this sector due to several potential factors(4) such as more favourable employment in non-agriculture sectors and the increased vulnerability of the agriculture sector due to weather or climatic disturbances and political unrest. A combination of these different factors, among others, has made it quite challenging to increase the production of Philippine natural fibres. Finding potential solutions to these challenges is crucial to building a flouring farm-to-closet supply chain.
WHAT IS ABACA?
Abaca is a banana plant native to the Philippines and the country supplies around 86.1% of the world’s abaca fibre requirements. The majority of Abaca is grown on smallholder farms, on average about 0.69 hectares with some cooperatives or associations with farms ranging from 10 to 100 hectares. The majority of the Abaca farms are located in the Bicol region, Visayas and Mindanao(5). The material is desired for its great mechanical strength, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fibre length – up to 3 m.
ABACA ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS
The Abaca plant has some positive environmental benefits. Intercropping abaca in former monoculture plantations (particularly coconut palms) and rainforest areas can minimise erosion and support biodiversity rehabilitation(6). Abaca is a renewable resource with several stalks which can be harvested annually and regenerate fully within a year.
According to PhilFIDA’s 2021 - 2025 Abaca Industry Roadmap(7), only 13% of the abaca farmers use fertilisers in growing abaca. Around 87% of farmers do not apply fertiliser at all, and they depend only on the available soil nutrients. While around 11% use organic fertiliser and only 2% use inorganic fertiliser.
NATURAL FIBRE PROCESS
Harvesting of Abaca is done by removing the leaf stem after flowering but before the abaca’s fruit appears. It involves several operations:
1.Tuxying: the separation of the primary and secondary sheath
2. Stripping of the sheath to get the fibres. The resulting fibre is pale and lustrous with a length of around 6 - 12 feet.
3.Drying under the sun
4.Once the fibres are dry, they are bundled together and sold by the farmers.
5.These fibres are then processed into pulp for products such as paper, cordage/rope or handwoven fabrics.
All these steps are done in the Philippines but ultimately 97% of the total abaca fibres produced by the country is exported mainly to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.
CREATING YARN AND TEXTILES FOR OUR GARMENTS
Traditionally raw abaca fibres have been knotted together manually by weavers in the Philippines and ultimately woven into cloth using local handlooms. A well-known example of traditional handwoven Abaca textiles is T’nalak, which is a weaving tradition of the T’boli people of South Cotabato.
This beautiful textile is woven exclusively by women who have received the designs of the textile in their dreams which is believed to be a gift from Fu Dalu, the T’boli Goddess of abaca. It is a valuable textile that represents this indigenous community’s intangible cultural heritage.
Our approach to creating handwoven Abaca fabric is very different, we use abaca paper yarn created by Abacell, a manufacturer in Taiwan. To create the yarn they turn the abaca pulp into paper, slit the paper and twist the paper into yarn.
Abacell(8), as an eco-conscious manufacturer, conducts a restricted substance list test to ensure that the end product does not contain any harmful chemicals. They have also conducted a test to ensure that the Abaca paper yarn can safely decompose in the soil at the end of its useful life. Abacell’s Abaca paper yarn is also lightweight, durable, anti-bacterial, odour-resistant, breathable and UV resistant.
WHY LOCAL FARM TO CLOSET SUPPLY CHAIN?
We decided to embark on a journey to make a farm-to-closet supply chain in the Philippines a reality because we believe in the environmental and social benefits this can bring. Not only do 100% local supply chains ensure reduced transportation emissions, but they also allow us to have greater visibility of our supply chain and allow us to work more closely with the different stakeholders involved to address environmental and social issues.
We also believe that to build a flourishing and sustainable textile and fashion industry in the Philippines, we need to start by strengthening our agricultural sector to help us improve our ability to produce and process our raw materials. Beyond that, we recognise the need for technology to support eco-conscious yarn development. The Philippines is very blessed to have a variety of natural fibres that could potentially become alternatives to the non-renewable resources that the global fashion industry has become extremely dependent on. We still have a long way to go but we are in it for the long haul!