Weaving essence and jobs from an indigenous craft

>> Monday, January 20, 2014

By Gina Dizon

LA TRINIDAD, Benguet- Giving the yarn she was knitting to a mother whom Leonarda Olat Capuyan popularly called Narda, counselled on family planning years ago meant helping another.

This gracious act also began the 45 year old Narda’s Handwoven Arts and Crafts to what it is now and on to Narda having landed top 4 in the prestigious national finalists search for Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.

The mothers are the clients of Narda at a clinic she was then working at Km 5, La Trinidad as a nurse and a family planning counsellor teaching women how to plan their families and use contraceptives.

“I was wondering how they could be bearing children almost every year and so asked them if they wanted to knit”, Leonarda Capuyan said. “One of the women was interested and so I gave her right away the yarn I was knitting”, she added. 

The woman who got the yarn wove a blanket.

Soon, other mothers who were being counselled for birth control were asking for yarn to weave and knit.  Narda provided the yarn and paid them for the blankets they wove and sweaters they knitted and sold this to friends and relatives. The payment meant helping augment the income for needs of a growing household. Having migrated from Mountain Province, husband and wife and children came to work and stay in the growing economic town of La Trinidad located near the already bustling city of Baguio.

Making people productive in other ways may have led the nursing mothers who visited her clinic  reduce pregnancy. But that it may have not mattered with an additional preoccupation of women - spinning acrylic yarn, weaving blankets, knitting sweaters and earning some money.

The women found a new hobby, a craft, a pre occupation, a livelihood. The women weavers increased with them encouraging their relatives, friends and neighbours.  While that is the case, demand for yarn and blankets to be woven needed money to buy looms, sewing machines, yarn and thread. Knitting and weaving blankets soon became an industry among the many weavers of La Trinidad.

A whole bodega of acrylic yarn weighing nearly 15  tons was offered to Narda.  “An auntie said we can buy that and lent P30,000 pesos”, Narda recalled . To add to personal savings, other friends and neighbours helped in the early financing of the weaving industry.

More capital was needed for a growing industry with increasing demand for products. Narda sought assistance from the Medium and Small Industries Coordinated Action Program (MASICAP) for the possibility of a loan. A feasibility study of a P450,000.00 loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines premised on the projection of coming up with 21,000 dozens of knitted and woven finished materials on a two-shift basis in 1975 and that by 1979, capacity would rise to 42,000 on two working shifts. The loan was granted which  added more equipment and thread to a fast increasing job pool.   

Initial women weavers are residents of La Trinidad who came from the weaving community of Mountain Province- Sagada, Besao, and Bontoc. Already having knowhow of backstrap weaving, a traditional work and craft that women do and girls learn in the Mountain Province, weaving came in handy. Loom weaving followed through inspired by Ms Foster’s loom weaving at Lepanto, Mankayan in the ‘70s. First five initial looms were assembled and worked on in 1976. 

“I have to provide looms and backstrap materials to the women who work in their homes during their spare time and in between their domestic chores” while their husbands worked as construction workers and drivers, in a growing economic district then in the ‘70s.

There were the 71 operating looms including 36 outsider backstrapweavers  aside from other  90 workers before Narda’s hit big at Bloomingdales in New York  in 1982.

Bloomingdales sales spurred on to  register some 600  weavers towards 1989 providing jobs to  women mostly mothers who augmented income for food and education of their children to  nearby schools in La Trinidad and Baguio.

                                photo from Nardas' files
Spooling yarn and weaving blankets added to sources of employment of what was then a growing economic district of La Trinidad in the 1970s. La Trinidad being a thoroughfare to  the summer capital of Baguio City had its initial business sites of a gasoline station at Km 5. La Trinidad then being manned by  Narda’s husband, engineer and businessman Wilson Capuyan who hails from Sagada, Mountain Province.  La Trinidad being the capital of Benguet hosting the provincial capitol and other government offices showed promise of a soon to be bustling economic town of Benguet.

Blankets, bonnets and sweaters proved to be a demand for cool Benguet, Besao, Sagada, Bauko, Mountain Province and even the warm places in Bontoc and La Union. Too, close knit ties among people from Mt Province must have been a major plus factor in marketing yarn made-blankets to friends and relatives. 

A display centre was located at the Capuyan’s  House at  Km 5  with business then known as  Nardas’ Cottage Industry. Soon, a four story building was built in the ‘80s to house the weaving factory.

Other weavers from Mountain Province back home ordered bales of recyclable yarn sold by the bulk from garment industries from Manila. Former Board of Investments Governor Conrado Sanchez Jr  also convinced garment factories to sell their scraps to Narda.

Scrap materials of leather and other fabric are creatively sewed with woven materials and made into bags and upholstery. Demand for blankets and other products such as bags and wallets reached San Fernando, La Union and Pangasinan.

The money earning weaving industry helping hundreds of women  earned her 2nd place in Region 1 for Most Outstanding Entrepreneur in 1975 and awarded a Plaque of Recognition for her  sincere dedication and devoted  performance, sustained professionalism  and high sense of service  in the field of small industries. In1978, she gained PARTUAT award for Regions 1 and 11 under NACIDA’s Northern Luzon gaining pride for Benguet and northern Luzon and from her roots in Besao, Mountain Province.

So strong is the demand that Narda even relied on cheques as payment from customers to keep the business going. One unfortunate transaction turned out to be a deceptive and dishonest deal from a customer with bounced checks found out to be stolen from a post office.

“How could I pay my loan at DBP was a big problem”, Narda heavily recalled.

Her husband Wilson Capuyan sacrificed his gas station and his trucking business and became the finance manager of the growing weaving industry.

The family of one of her patients at St Luke’s Hospital when she was then a nurse in the prestigious hospital introduced her to hotels as a potential market for Narda’s products. Manila Hotel and Philippine Airlines became two of her customers. And for Nardas’ Cottage Industries established in the bullish and Taurean month of May  registered with the National Cottage Industries (NACIDA) in 1973, Narda’s business pushed on. In due time, her loan at DBP was paid off with profit from hotel sales.

A break with ikat
A new venture came with the  introduction of ‘ikat’ following some 10 years of marketing acrylic yarn-made blankets in the immediate community of  Benguet and Mountain Province.  Ikat found its place in the hotel and restaurant business a favourite in the national and international market in the ‘80s and years after..

                                                                                                  photo from Nardas' files 
Narda’s first supplied Baguio Pines Hotel and Manila Hotel. Other hotels followed in Baguio-Terraces Hotel, Europa Condominiums- and on to the Manila Hotel and other five-star hotels in the country including Buhawi Inn, Mc Adore International Palace in Dagupan City, Pangasinan.

She opened a display centre in the then Mount Crest Hotel, Baguio and in Bel Air Manila near the American Sports Plaza and the Korean Gardens in Manila. Hotels in other parts of the world followed suit.

Came  a two month trade promotion of Philippine products which former first Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos opened in Washington DC in 1982 and opened an international market for Narda’s products.

 A time for flare and the big break was supplying Bloomingdale’s Department Store in New York, Manhattan store after having been featured in an all-Filipino sales exhibition in 1982.

Narda’s product sales were one with the total 5 million US dollars sold out in all 13 outlets of the top 10 merchandising stores in the US with chains in East Coast cities of Washington, Boston Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Sale at New York followed suit in other countries. One among the hotels she supplied with interior decoration is the 16 storey Pacific star hotel in Guam.

In 1987, Narda’s posted sales of 17 million pesos three times 1985 sales.

How Narda came to enliven an indigenous design is a story to tell.

She met American Ellen Schattsneider, a textile weaving  consultant of Design Center  Philippines  in 1975 and together with  Schattsneider, Narda  brought back  ikat, an old tradition of tying and dyeing  threads before these are woven. Ikat weaving originated from Southeast Asia, Turkey and the Middle East and  with the creativity of Narda,  took on a  creation subtly  different from the usual Cordillera  bright colors of red, black and greens straight lined weaving with  diamond designs.  Ikat weaving using backstrap and loom weaving takes an intricate and subtle design of earth colors red, blue, brown, violent and green shades sparked to wavy expressions.

Ikat found its way also in the Cordillera particularly in Ifugao and in the Mountain Province. Ikat using cotton brought by Chinese traders from Ilocos Sur had then been worked on by Narda’s  mother Irene Docallas  during the 2nd World War and sold at her store. 

A woman from Ifugao had been reviving  the ikat which the Design Center of the Philippines took notice and sent visiting American Ellen Schattsneider, fellow American Kim Panjanco and Narda experimenting on the ikat design.

Ikat-designed woven products come in men’s accessories- shirts and neck ties, and women’s apparel- blazers, shawls, toppers, bags and dining and living room adornment of a fine sight with table covers, curtains, bed covers, upholstery, and placemats.

Creativity and initiative are obviously strong values apart from quality that keep Narda sustained in her art and craft. Involvements and invitation from fairs and trainings offered by the government and private sector added to making  Narda’s and the many employees it has gain skills and produce better products. Even after so many years.

“They’re so stylish and yet so Pinoy. And it lasts forever. I’m so proud of my very first  shawl  bought  20 years ago . It still looks good  as when I bought it.”, said customer Edith Bernal from Manila.

Quality control along with  exceptional product designs makes up Narda’s products  attracting customers and keeping them satisfied.

Customer Alice Tanovesaid,“I still use and treasure the ikat scarves that I got from you 30 years ago. They keep getting better with age.”

Apart from the original creativity and skill of  Narda and her weavers, other agencies helped more in product development to include trainings and market opportunities shared by the Board of Investments, Design Center Philippines, NACIDA, Bureau of Small and Medium Industries, Small Business Assistance Center, and the Bureau of Foreign Trade.

In 1982, Narda received the Golden Shell Award from the then Ministry of Trade for sustaining the weaving trade.

The award brought forth projections of establishing subcontracting tie ups with 368 weavers in five years time. The scheme calls for providing  weaving needs of  home weavers  from Benguet. Mountain Province and  Baguio City in terms of  raw materials such as thread and looms, market outlets, financial and training requirements. In the same manner that skills Narda’s weavers  they basically know and learned was also shared to others.

From its training room in La Trinidad, Benguet which trained a number of weavers, the firm’s weavers were chosen to demonstrate the art of backstrap and loom weaving in Philippine trade fairs in Vancouver and New York.

The Development Bank of the Philippines featured her story in a television commercial.

Even the late President Corazon Aquino awarded her the Countryside Investor Award in 1989.

The Philippine Marketing Association also recognized Narda’s “very forward, and uncomplicated network open for the indigenous entrepreneur propelling the Philippine’s export industry to better heights” and for this, they awarded her the AGORA Award.

 In 1999, Narda was selected one of the 100 Women of the Philippines who excelled in their work and contributed to national development.

More awards
Narda’sikat was featured at New York’s Culture Fashion Week held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and at the World Eco-Fiber and Textile Exhibit Fashion Show at Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia in 2012.

“I really find your weaving very beautiful. I’ll buy several items to Canada and I my friends will find it beautiful”. said customer, Christine from Quebec, Canada.

This October  2013, Narda won the Small Business Entrepreneur Award of the Year among 12 finalists, and one among the top 4  in the search for the winning entry to  the  international place of fame. The award is  given by the Department of Trade and Industry, the SGV Foundation, the Philippine Business for Social Progress, the Philippine Stock Exchange, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the University of the Philippines College of Business Administration.

There must be something that has kept Narda the nurse, the weaver, wife to husband Wilson, mother of  two- Bernard and Lucia- and grandmother of five- Gayagay, Steve, Jamie, Nadine and Gebgeb-, the artist sustained going through every wave- excitement, frustration, vivacity to calmness - in her life.

“My husband is the businessman”, she said with eyes that can go from sad to amusement to joy. Narda provides the initiative, dynamic, creativity and the spunk to try new things and reach out and keep Narda’s Handwoven Arts and Crafts formerly called Narda’s Cottage Industries   going strong and dynamic. And while ikat in foreign lands gain flavor,  the traditional woven products gain stronghold in Narda’s homebase at La Trinidad, Benguet.

Her husband who manages Winaca Ridge shares the same office with Narda where they confer to almost every imitative, resolve every conflict and keep the business sustained from day to day, month to month, year to year.

Like the designs of a tapestry, the layers of woven ikat go through in rhythmic waves of expression at a given tempo  at a given place.

“Great to know that Narda’s is still going strong. I still have placemats from almost  20 years ago”,  Levi Pena of  Arlington, Virginia said.  

Still going strong. There must be something new for Narda in  2014 having just won among the top 4 Finalists in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Another creative and dynamic business with Narda for the year of the Wooden Horse and beyond trying new things, providing  jobs, catering to a particular taste in respective places yet keeping firm to an indigenous craft she knows by hand and by heart.


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