Know your fabric: Piña fabric from pineapple

October 6, 2021

Piña fabric (pronounced as pi-NYAH) is an indigenous woven fabric derived from pineapple leaves, specifically the Spanish Red pineapple variety due to its notable tensile strength. It is one of the most well-known traditional textiles used in the Philippines, and primarily used by Filipino aristocrats from as early as the 19th century when the country was a Spanish colony.

Today, piña remains to be the fabric of choice for formal wear and haute couture, like piña barong, by Filipinos and Filipino designers alike due to its natural lustre and airy, breathable quality.

As the plant takes only 18 months to mature, piña leaves and the production of the leaf fibre is viewed as a sustainable source of fabric. The leaves are considered agricultural waste during the harvesting of the pineapple fruit. Piña fibre does not require any chemical refinement and are also biodegradable. It’s no wonder that the use of pineapple leaves as a sustainable alternative to leather is also gaining traction in the global textile industry.

What is the origin of the word “piña”?

The word piña comes from the Spanish word for pineapple. The textile is derived from the leaves of the Spanish Red pineapple and native Philippine Red pineapple varieties, which usually requires less than two years to mature. Grown in open fields, the pineapple plant’s leaves can grow up to two meters in length, and at least three to five leaves can be harvested from the plants to yield fibres that can be hand-woven.

The province of Kalibo, Aklan located in the Visayas region dominates the pineapple production, with other pineapple plantations located in Bukidnon, Palawan and Batangas, most of which experience plenty of rainfall that is required to grow the pineapple.

In many of these farming communities, the work of extracting the pineapple leaves and fibre is quite labour-intensive as most are still done by hand but there are production facilities where the decortication process is done mechanically.

What is the purpose of piña fabric?

Today, Filipino weavers creating hand-loomed, pure piña fabric are down to a handful in number, making the fabric quite precious and scarce. Pure piña cloth commands a higher price than other textiles in the market due to its labor-intensive, complex and time-consuming production. The average length of time it takes to produce one meter of pure piña cloth is eight hours.

Piña fibre is often combined with silk, abaca, cotton fabric or polyester to create lightweight fabrics. Clothing made from pure piña cloth are considered investments for some, and heirloom pieces for generations of Filipino families, with embroidered piña wedding dresses, formal attire such as the Barong Tagalog and terno, as well smaller and daintier pieces like handkerchiefs, shawls (panuelo), and veils, to name a few, being handed down from one generation to another. Embroidered pieces are valued more, given the painstaking work involved.

How is piña fabric made?

During the harvesting of the pineapple fruits, the leaves are separated from the trunk. The fibre from the leaves is removed from through a process called decortication wherein the strands are pulled or split away from the leaves. Up to 15 to 18 pieces of fibre can be obtained from a kilo of pineapple leaves, each ranging from 20 to 30 inches in length.

The filaments are painstakingly hand-scraped using tools such as coconut shells, split bamboo or pottery shards. Traditional methods require that the bundle of cellulose strands to be washed in rivers and then hung to dry. The strands are then waxed and whipped to remove any effluent, and then knotted one by one.

This method is called pag panug-ot in the local Visayan language and is a strenuous task that also involves intricacy and delicacy as the individual strands are prone to easily breaking and thus have to be re-knotted constantly. In the Philippines’ pineapple farming communities, the entire process may require as many as 30 people, from the time of harvesting to the knotting of the strands.

The pineapple fibres are then fed into a loom to be woven, again by hand, into beautiful piña cloth (piña weaving). However not all strands can be made into cloth. The finest fiber, liniwan, is usually the choice for haute couture garments. The finer strands are referred to as pinukpok, as the filaments are pounded thoroughly prior to weaving. The coarse second layer called bastos is used to make strings or twine.

In the second stage, the steps in making piña fabric involve warping. Using pegs stuck on a board, enough threads are warped to complete a sucod consisting of 18 to 20 bucos, equivalent to 54 to 60 meters of cloth. The warping process can take anywhere from 15 to 20 days to finish.

The method of spinning or pag-talinyas is just as labor-intensive as the previous steps, this time involving a hand-operated bobbin to prepare the material for the loom. The piña cloth’s thickness and width depend on the number of sucod and the types of winder used, which usually comes in 65, 70 and 80 types. Using 65 sucod produces a cloth about 24 inches in width, which is the shortest. Meanwhile, 70 sucod yields a 29-inch-wide piña cloth, and using 80 sucod results in cloth about 31 to 32 inches wide.

Adding colour to the fibre using dyes is usually done prior to weaving. Most piña fibres are usually dyed using vegetable dyes extracted from leaves, flowers or trees, which further emphasises its organic appeal.

The natural colour of finished pineapple fabric is ecru or off-white. The Philippines’ national dress, which is the Barong Tagalog for men and the terno for women, are commonly designed and finished in its natural colour, retaining its slightly golden hue, translucence, and lustre. Over time, the cloth acquires a vintage yellowish tinge, which distinguishes it as pure piña.

Piña fabric’s timeless elegance

What makes piña fabric unique? Finished piña fabric is known to be translucent, stiff and naturally glossy. Since the fibres are thin, the pineapple thread is often combined with silk, polyester or even abaca to create piña cloth garments, as well as scarves, shawls, handkerchiefs, veils and more.

In earlier times, weavers of the piña fabric chose their own design, most taking the form of flowers, fruits, and tropical scenery such as nipa huts and coconut trees. However, it’s quite rare to find a piña garment without any adornment. Most pieces made from Philippine piña cloth are embellished with traditional hand embroidery called calado. Thus, an embroidered piña garment is called piña calado.

According to a 2018 article from the website of Atlas Obscura, at some point in history, piña also made its way across the ocean from the Philippine islands into the hands of Europe, and even European royalty. Princess Alexandra of Denmark reportedly received a piña handkerchief as a wedding gift in 1862

What are the benefits of using piña fabric in clothing?

One of the notable qualities of piña fabric is its breathability. Being naturally lightweight, the fabric makes it ideal for sub-tropical climates and its accompanying humid weather. Piña’s natural softness and translucence enhances its ethereal yet regal appearance.

The piña fibre also blends well with other such as silk, abaca and cotton, allowing the creation of hybrid fabrics that add another layer of character to the produced cloth. Piña-silk or pineapple silk is a favourite among those in the upper crust of Philippine society.

However, a finished garment made from pure piña cloth is seen as a testament to the finest quality of Philippine fabrics and workmanship, making it truly invaluable and a treasured heirloom in the family.

The sustainability of piña

Despite the cultivation and production of piña textile and cloth in the Philippines since the early 18th century, it is only in recent history that the popularity of piña as a sustainable resource is becoming more well known.

The process of planting and harvesting pineapple only takes 18 months, and requires to no tilling or fertilising, or even additional land or water to grow, unlike cotton. During the decortication as well as the scraping of the layers to obtain the fibres, any leftover plant waste can be used as fertiliser or fuel, and food for livestock. Even finished piña garments are biodegradable as most don’t have any artificial dyes or any chemicals added during the process.

Despite the fact that much of the process in extracting the fibre and weaving remains to be quite complex and laborious, the production of piña is proving to be a great example as a cradle-to-cradle material. As the pineapple fruit itself is harvested, the leaves are considered agricultural waste.

Piña fibre is also emerging as an alternative to leather as more and more consumers switch to more environment- and animal-friendly options. The brand Piñatex™ created by designer Carmen Hijosa is at the forefront of this game-changing textile, which uses natural pineapple fibre from the Philippines. To date, brands like Camper, Ally Capellino, SmithMatthias and Puma have created prototypes of their products using Piñatex™. With growing demand for this vegan-friendly product, manufacturers are also realising there are too few pineapple fibre suppliers to meet the rising need.

Most pineapple plants are grown organically as these do better in untreated soil and without the use of any chemical fungicides. In the Philippines, there has been a renewed interest in cultivating the Red Spanish variety to produce bigger quantities of pineapple fibre, and to revive the age-old tradition of weaving the fabric and producing the cloth. The resurgence of the use of pineapple to create textiles bolsters the drive to rediscover long-lost traditional artisanal skills among the native Filipino communities.

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