My Retirement Dream Come True: Working with Textiles in the Philippines
By Betsy Blosser
from the archives, March 2020
For the past several years, since before I retired from my job at SFSU, I have been casting about for the opportunity to use my various textile skills to work with women on fair trade products in developing countries. I pursued various leads, sometimes aggressively, but nothing seemed to pan out. So I contented myself with improving my weaving skills and traveling for my own pleasure. But the trip of our congregational delegation to the Philippines in April led to a change in my luck.
On that trip, while visiting our partner congregation in Ulay, I observed that while what we have done with our educational partnerships is terrific, the community desperately needed economic development. Upon arriving home, I was given the name of Christine Nielsen, founder and president of the economic development organization, New Pathways to Enterprise, and a member of the Annapolis, Maryland, congregation. Chris’ organization focuses on women, help-ing them start businesses that provide enough extra income for their families to make ends meet and pay for their children’s schooling. New Pathways has projects on several islands in the Philippines. Furthermore, our “own” Rev. Arman Pedro has worked extensively with New Pathways.
I sent an email to Chris, asking two questions: 1) would New Pathways start an economic development project in Ulay?, and 2) could I, with my various textile skills, be useful to Chris in her organization? She wrote back and said, “yes” and “yes.” That response is what prompted my second trip to the Philippines in September.
On September 6th, I met Chris and Jayces Garello in Manila. Chris is a retired business school professor. Jayces is a Master’s student in Development Studies at the London School of Economics, a Filipina, and a former full-time volunteer with New Pathways. From there, we flew to Cebu, where we met the fourth member of our group, Reynic Alo, an agricultural specialist from Bacolod, on Negros, who works with New Pathways. Thus began our three-week journey to five islands and numerous villages.
It was my job to work with the textile projects, of which there are several. Two communities do macrame , some-thing I haven’t done since the 1970s. They use nylon cording, since cotton rope or string would rot in a short time in the humidity of the Philippines. They make lovely and intricate purses, and other items. Two other communities do sewing. One of them – Doldol - has a sewing center in the community. They tend to make school uniforms and lovely dresses for little girls – the latter for the export market. This same community, as a business, had tried the rental of fancy gowns. Unfortunately, they were unable to rent a sufficient number of gowns for special events to make any money. So we suggested using the fabric from the gowns for other items that could be sold. I created patterns for a jewelry case and a clutch purse, both of which could be made from the silk or satin of the unrented dresses. While we were there, the women made samples, which were lovely – and they went on to make more, which will be available for sale. In the other sewing community – Mowacat, the women also have a food house and they are waiting for the construction of a bakery, which was their first-choice livelihood project. For that reason, I didn’t assist there with any sewing.
There are also two weaving communities. The first is in Tabao on Negros. In that community, New Pathways had provided a group of women with a number of tabletop looms and arranged for weaving lessons for the women. Unfortunately, those who were teaching and mentoring the weavers had tried to teach beginners to weave very fine – and thus difficult – cloth. When they made errors, as one might expect in the learning process, the more senior weavers stopped working with the less experienced weavers. As a result, we found the New Pathways looms gathering dust in a storage room. I was able to do a mini-workshop to demonstrate much less complicated weaving, and the women seemed to respond well. Chris promptly ordered items made from my techniques, so that the women would have to work with the techniques to complete the items she ordered.
The second weaving community is Taguig, in metro Manila, on the island of Luzon. In that community, the municipality is pulling water hyacinths - an invasive species - from a local lake. The stalks of the plant are then dried. Small fibers are pulled from the insides of the stalks, and those fibers are being used to make rope and to weave into a fairly fine “cloth” or mat. The wider stalks, now stripped of the interior fibers, are also woven into bigger items, like tote bags.
So my job is to play with fiber! I need to develop macrame patterns, and find sewing patterns for items the women in the sewing communities can make to sell. I have to play with one of the “potholder looms” some of us used as children, because women in other communities are using looms built on that same principle to make door mats. To me, this all seems like great fun!
If you’re interested in helping in some way, I would appreciate receiving any old tee-shirts you might want to get rid of. These can be used for the door mats, and for other weaving projects. If you have sewing items you’re not using – and the items are small (i.e. to fit in a suitcase), I could take them to the sewing centers. If you know of people who need bead work done (one sewing center also does beading), please let me know. Otherwise, just know that this retired woman is living her dream!