By Raquel Bagnol
Loom-weaving is an essential part of the culture of Fais, a small coral island located 158 miles northeast of Yap. The traditional woven skirt known as “lavalava” is considered a fundamental aspect of being a woman.
In earlier times, Fais girls as young as three to four years old learned to weave, starting with toy backstrap looms set up by their mothers or elder sisters. Young girls wore grass skirts and started wearing lavalava when they reached the age of puberty to symbolize their sexual maturity.
When the Germans came in the late 19th century, they introduced colorful commercial textiles made of cotton thread. Fais women continued wearing lavalava, but this time, using commercial spools of thread rather than traditional dried hibiscus leaves.
In February 2009, anthropologist Dr. Donald H. Rubinstein of the University of Guam presented a paper at the Second ASEAN Traditional Textiles Symposium in Manila, where he discussed Fais’ attempt to revive and preserve the lost art of loom weaving amid the challenges posed by commercialization.
The paper, titled “Habi: Sustaining the Traditional Textiles of the ASEAN,” focused on “machi,” a special loom-woven cloth with intricate patterns which was used only for certain occasions including spiritual ceremonies.
Machi is made from undyed, dried banana fiber and hibiscus fiber yarns. Women use natural and vegetable pigments to create colorful yarns. The knowledge of making it was exclusive only to Fais women.
The machi was used as a ritual mantle during the investiture of an incoming chief and during the coming-of-age rites of adolescent boys to symbolize their adulthood.
After World War II, the Catholic Church missionized Fais and the Outer Islands of Yap, resulting in the abandonment of ceremonies for the gods and spirits, as well as the investiture rites for island chiefs.
The machi found new purposes. It was used as a burial wrap for dead elderly men. It also represented the highest form of a gift. Its value was equal to a man’s life. When men went on sailing trips, the female relatives would give them a machi. If a man got himself in trouble, he could give the machi to the village chief to secure protection. If a person accidentally killed someone, he would give a machi to the victim’s family to seek forgiveness.
Because of its cultural value, the machi cannot be commercialized as a handicraft commodity.
Machi started disappearing slowly and the knowledge of its weaving dwindled in the 20th century. By 2000, less than 25 older women in Fais knew how to weave machi.
A Fais resident named Sophiano Limol worked to revive and preserve machi weaving. He sought funding for this project. It was not easy for him. The Yap State Workforce Investment Act offered support on the condition that machi weaving would be taught in a school setting to all the women in Yap.
For Limol, sharing the knowledge with a broader group meant Fais risked losing their exclusive traditional control, a violation of the proprietary rights of the Fais community. He also saw the machi school as inconsistent with how the women originally learned machi weaving— from their mothers, sisters and aunts at home.
The traditional leaders and the ranking chief made it clear that the finished machi should not be sold because it would be an insult to the chiefs.
In 2004, six women graduated from the machi school. After three more classes, a total of two dozen women had graduated with knowledge of machi weaving. The project came to a halt in 2007 when the funds ran out.
No one can sell the machi in Yap because of the restrictions set by the traditional chiefs, but some started selling machi privately to outsiders. The prices of machi ranged from $500 to $1,200 depending on the quality and design.
The context of machi weaving has changed over the years. While it was originally designed to preserve the practice, weaving has increasingly become a source of income for women.
“The revival of this traditional textile illustrates the Fais community’s ability to creatively negotiate between tradition and modernity,” Rubenstein wrote in his paper.
He noted, however, that there is no indication that commoditization is pushing the machi in the direction of mass-produced “tourist art.”
“On the contrary, as the Fais women strive to publicly demonstrate their expertise and knowledge by weaving finely elaborate machi incorporating the full repertoire of possible patterns and using only local plant fibers and dyes, the textile takes on an aspect of ‘fine art’ object,” Rubenstein said. “It is often treated as such by discerning collectors, when they display machi behind glass in an expensive frame, such as one machi that adorns the lobby of Yap’s only luxury hotel.”
Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org