Life with the loom

Cecilia Gison Villanueva, a small, soft-spoken woman in her seventies, recalls that day in the 1980s when presidential security guards descended on her house on OsmeƱa Street, Arevalo, Iloilo City. “I got scared and wondered what I did wrong.” Pretty soon the guards had blocked a good portion of the street. Only then did they tell her: “Imee is coming.”

Imee, of course, is the daughter of President Ferdinand Marcos. The family was still very much in power then. Imee came to the house, chose from among Villanueva's finished products – shawls, dresses, kaftans, and barongs for the men, made from jusi or cotton or pina or silk or abaca, handwoven from traditional looms. “I never met anybody who just bought and bought and never even asked how much things cost,” Vilanueva says. “She just told me to collect from the bank, and so I did.”

The anecdote gives us an idea of the reputation of Arevalo Sinamay Dealers among Ilonggos and non-Ilonggos alike. Villanueva' clients comprise well-heeled members of society, politicians and their wives, men and women in business, balikbayans and foreigners. Indeed on that cloudy Saturday morning, as Villanueva takes a break from our interview to greet her granddaughter's friends from school, I look around the spacious ancestral home and note that, aside from a traditional loom and a big black car under the wide stairs and authentic turn-of-the-(twentieth)century pieces like chests and a cabinet and a brass telephone mounted on the wall, the old woman has on display a picture with the late President Corazon Aquino and a framed letter from the office of the Princess of Wales. Sometime in 1990 or 1991, a British woman wandered into her house looking for a gift for “a friend.” When Villanueva learned that the friend was no less than Princess Diana, she asked the Brit to give another shawl to the princess. “It was a beige one,” she recalls, wistfully.

Villlanueva has been managing the business since 1958 when her mother Rosario died. The family enterprise has always been in the two-story home built by Rosario's grandparents. In a city famous for ancestral homes – grand old houses that give Iloilo a timeless feel – Villanueva's home seems almost commonplace, except for the sign that announces the business that is inside it.

And then you know you have stepped into an extraordinary place. Villanueva admits business has been slow. Demand peaked in the 1980s, when she had at least ten weavers working the looms. It slid in the nineties. Now she is down to three weavers. There also remains a lot of room in the imposing narra aparador that houses the stocks. What do you do between orders, I ask. The old woman looks around, smiles and shrugs her shoulders.

Villanueva and her weavers produce between five and six pieces per week-- if there are no orders. It takes a week for them to finish one piece of an ordered product. It, of course, is worth the wait – and the price tag. A shawl costs P650; a barong tagalog, P1,200. The price of ordered materials vary with the specifications.

“We don't really operate on volume,” she says. “What keeps us going is that our products are unique. They are designed and handwoven by us so you won't find them anywhere else. That's how we keep our customers and attract new ones.”

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But isn't sinamay a kind of raw material used to make any of the products mentioned above? Villanueva explains that sinamay in the Arevalo sense refers particularly to handwoven products. “Samay” is a verb that means “to make” or “to design.” Thus, one cannot take out the human-touch factor when one talks about sinamay.

Alas, there are hardly any young people interested in learning to work the loom anymore. Villanueva says girls in her area nowadays are interested in pursuing medicine-related careers or anything that could land them well-paying jobs either in Manila or abroad. Worse, they see weaving as old-fashioned, something dead or dying. Going into this field is something beneath these girls who dream of a more prosperous life. Small wonder that Villanueva's three weavers are all middle-aged women, wives of farmers who are only grateful for additional, albeit small, income.

Still, Villanueva intends to keep the family business alive, or at least afloat. Her siblings are now both in Manila and she has the house all to herself. Well, not quite. Actually her daughter, Corona Villanueva de Leon, sells cookies under the brand Mama's Kitchen on the first floor of the ancestral home. Villanueva is confident that her own children will continue the family tradition. The sinamay house, after all, has been a must-see place for Iloilo visitors for ages.

I end the interview marveling at the old woman's bearings. She does not seem to be worried that the business has seen better days and that she has to wait for the buyers to come instead of going after them. She seems quite content that she only has a few workers and that the job orders vary from month to month. While she is sad that weaving as a career is not as appealing to girls as it used to be, but I think she is happy at just being able to carry on what her mother has started. Is she aware that it is possible to breathe new life into her gem of a business? Then again, I am an outsider. What do I know?

I ponder all these as I make my way to a bread house further down the street to stock up on pasalubong. On my way back, I go past Villanueva's house again – there are now three vans parked on the shoulder of the road, foreigners are alighting from the vehicles and making their way into the house. They are bound to be as wowed as I am. It looks like the aparador will be even roomier after that morning. Maybe there will even be more orders. It's not a bad day at all.

That it is rustic and laid back gives Iloilo its charm. Residents feel no compulsion to wave flags to call attention to themselves. And yet, despite this, people keep coming back to this great place. As I will.

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