Weaving the t’nalak is tedious and requires numerous steps for a single cloth to be completed. Listed below are the steps which begins from the harvesting of the raw material, the abaca, to the burnishing and washing of the completely woven fabric.

harvesting abaca and the stripping of the fibers

Making the t’nalak begins by gathering the raw material used in weaving found in the stems of the abaca plant or the kedungon. This plant is from the same family as the banana tree.

The harvesting of the abaca requires physical brawn and this important task is designated to T’boli. Before harvesting begins, he sets up a prayer table and says a prayer to Fu Dalu. With a sharp knife, he slashes the tree diagonally at a few inches from the ground.

In order to produce a 14–meter long t’nalak, six abaca plants must be harvested. In addition, the plants need to be two to three years old and the diameter of their trunks at about 14–18 inches.

The trunk is then stripped off its layers and the first few pieces are laid on atriangular offering table for Fu Dalu. The succeeding strips are then inserted between a block of wood held securely to a horizontal beam with a large knife pressing down on it. The abaca harvester would then pull the stalk through the two, separating the pulp from the abaca fiber.

After stripping, the fibers would have to be combed immediately so as to remove the sap that causes the darkening of the strands. It is hung from a housebeam and combed with the fingers where the weaver selects and separates the fibers according to their thickness. During the selection of the fibers, the whiter and finer threads found in the inner stalks are separated from thecoarser ones. The fibers are spread on a beam and left to dry inside the house.

segregating the fibers and connecting them from end to end

After air-drying the newly harvested fibers for at least 24 hours or until they are adequately supple, the fibers are grouped into wrist-size bundles. To soften the fibers, the women take the abaca strands and hand-rub or squeeze them, using a motion like washing clothes, to make them pliant. This motion produces a zigzag pattern which helps the weavers to easily identify and segregate the strands according to quality. Fine fibers are reserved for the warp or the lengthwise threads, and the thicker fibers are used for the weft or the crosswise threads.

Once dried, the women individually connect the fibers from end to end by tying tiny knots. The ends are cut with a suk t’bong (small weaver’s blade) in order to make the connections invisible. They are then bundled together by winding the threads around a bamboo warp frame as a set of three and placed in baskets. It can take a weaver up to two weeks to be able to complete the standard length needed for the T’nalak. Around 35-40 blitus or bundles, with each bundle having 100-200 fibers of 1.5–2.5 meters in length, are needed to complete a 10 meter by 63 centimeters wide piece of t’nalak.

harvesting abaca and the stripping of the fibers

A t’nalak is defined by using the three traditional colors: black, red and white. In coloring the abaca strands, the T’boli women make use of natural dyes found in vegetation around their area. This process of resist-dye is commonly known as the ikat method that is shared with the neighboring countries of Indonesia and Thailand.
Hitem, or the black dye, is derived from leaves of the
k’nalum tree. Once rice sack of leaves is gathered, pounded, placed into a large pot of water, and boiled. After two to four hours, when the full color from the leaves is extracted, the bed or tied fibers are placed inside. The cooking of the fibers takes an average of three weeks with the fire being refueled three times each day and the leaves and berries replaced every two days.
Once fully absorbed with the deepest black, the tied fibers are removed and rinsed in running water through a stream until the water runs clear. It is then air dried for about two days before the knots that have been tied, reserved for the red portions, are carefully removed. A weaver must be gentle in removing these knots with the suk t’bong.
Hulo, or the red dye, is taken from the roots and bark shavings of the small-leafed loko tree. Around one kilogram of the loko’s bark and roots are boiled
in water for another half hour. The bed is then added and allowed to boil from
five days to one week. Once finished, the bed is removed and rinsed thoroughly until the water runs clear and then air-dried.

Weaving on the backstrap loom

The T’boli backstrap loom or the legogong, is a form of horizontal two-bar or two-
beamed loom where one bar is attached to the ceiling bamboo beam of the T’boli longhouse and the second beam, or the backstrap, is attached to the weaver’s lower back.
The longhouse is a structure specifically built for the production of the t’nalak. Because the length of the t’nalak can exceed over 10–meters, a horizontal structure is needed. In addition, the t’nalak must be woven in a cool area
or the fibers will snap.
When the t’nalak weaver works, she weaves in the rhythm. After passing the shuttle through the threads, she pushed the threads to tighten using a flat piece of coconut wood made smooth and shiny with use. She does this three times in order to ensure that the weaves are tight and when help up against the light, the t’nalak blocks light from passing through. The weaving stage can take around 14 days to a month depending on the “character” of the fiber and the complexity of the design.
After the t’nalak has been fully woven, the fabric is thoroughly washed in a river so that the entire piece can be stretched following the river flow. Once it has been slightly air-dried, the t’nalak is then beaten repeatedly with a hard and round wooden stick in order to flatten the knots.

Burnishing the surface of the T’nalak

The final phase of producing the t’nalak involves burnishing the surface with a saki or cowrie shell, while the fabric is still moist. This shell is attached to one end of a bamboo stick with the other end attached to a hole in the ceiling of the longhouse to help apply additional pressure to the procedure. This task involves a strong body, as the shell is firmly rubbed repeatedly on the t’nalak in order to flatten it and produce an even coruscating gloss. When completed, the t’nalak is stored by rolling it and wrapping it with a separate cloth to protect it from damage.