Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heritage in Stitches: Celebrating Embroidery in Lumban

Many tourists and visitors going through Laguna, the province that hugs Laguna Lake south of the Philippine capital Manila, usually stop at Calamba or Los Baños, known for their hot springs, and Pagsanjan, which likes to call itself as the tourist capital of the province, popular for its attractive falls.
But less popular towns of Laguna have charms of their own—old churches, gastronomic specialties, traditional crafts, rustic scenes and friendly people. Further east is the small town of Lumban, which is stepping out of the shadow of Pagsanjan, once—together with the provincial capital Santa Cruz and the town of Cavinti—part of Lumban.
Normally tranquil, Lumban bursts with sounds and colors every third week of September for its Burdang Lumban Festival. Aside from the fiesta in January, which has been celebrated for centuries, the town has added a festival, which is on its eighth year this 2009. It has been a recent fashion in the Philippines to create festivals to attract tourism, provide citizens cause for merriment and honor and promote a unique product, industry or heritage. For Lumban, the festival promotes its centuries-old craft and industry of hand embroidery, burda in Tagalog.
Fashion designers, prominent personalities and people in the know go all the way to Lumban for its barong Tagalog, wedding gowns and embroidery, which flourished only in this town in Laguna. Lumban wants to strengthen and further its reputation for hand embroidery, and establish itself as the Embroidery Capital of the Philippines.
“Embroidery has been part of our culture it’s impossible not to showcase it,” said the mayor of Lumban, lawyer Wilfredo Paraiso, who has been supportive of the cottage industry, encouraging embroiderers and businessmen to form an association and spearheading the Burdang Lumban Festival.
“This day is important to us because we show that we are united in supporting our industry, which many of us benefit from,” Paraiso, who usually speaks in straight Filipino, once said. “We Lumbeños are proud we have an identity and that is in the industry of the barong Tagalog.”
According to town councilor Larry Butch de Leon, also one of the prime movers of the Burdang Lumban Festival, the festival has become more important now because the town is facing stiff competition from age-old and biggest rival Taal in Batangas and new rival Bulacan, and it is a way of boosting their industry’s repute.
Their efforts are paying off as the festival is enjoying support from the government’s Department of Tourism and has been awarded the Presidential Citation for Best Practices just last July. The citation recognizes the best in local government units’ practices and programs in small and medium enterprise promotion. Lumban was awarded for “providing access to market.”
It is estimated that 30 percent of the town’s 25,000 or so population is engaged in the embroidery industry. The mayor projected it is 60 percent, perhaps the 30 percent involved indirectly.
The industry mainly consists of small producers. Going around Laguna through the highway, one recognizes Lumban by the numerous boards advertising embroidery and formal wear, after the resorts in Calamba and signs of boatmen for hire in Pagsanjan. The town is studded with shops selling embroidered barong Tagalog and gowns.

The Enterprise of Embroidery

Very near the municipal hall, along Rizal Street, is the shop of forty-something businesswoman Ailyn del Moral. Unlike many women in Lumban, Del Moral doesn’t know how to embroider. She opted to go school in Metro Manila, graduating with a management degree from Siena College in Quezon City. Her involvement in the embroidery and garments business is accidental. Knowing the reputation of Del Moral’s hometown, a friend asked about the process and cost of having a wedding gown made there. This sparked an idea of setting up a business. Her home has been transformed into a shop, which is now two-decade old, with the garage as a work area and the foyer an office and showroom.
On the day of our visit, her garage was full of embroiders for us to see the process. As with most of the town, the embroiderers were mostly middle-aged and old women. Normally, they work in their own homes. Shops subcontract the embroidering as well as other aspects of making a complete dress.

The embroiderers were mostly wives of fishers and farmers who want to augment the family income. Men usually do the washing of the finished products, but it is not unusual to see men doing embroidery. On off season, one can see swarthy and brawny fishermen creating flowers with needle and thread, an amusing sight. More amusing is the thought of upper-class women wearing gowns with fine details created by the calloused hands of a fisherman. In Del Moral’s shop, a teenaged boy joined the throng of women, deftly pulling his threaded needle. Embroiderers are usually paid Php15 an hour.
Although there are now machines for embroidery, which are used by some shops in Lumban back to back with hand embroidering, hand embroidery is still held in the highest esteem.
“We don’t neglect our tradition of hand embroidery unlike in other towns which use machines, although we also have them here. Plus we also do painting by hand or by airbrush,” said De Leon.
Hand embroidering seems a quiet and tedious work, requiring concentration and patience. Before embroidering, a design is “stamped” on the cloth. A design is transferred from paper to cloth by perforating the paper using a pen with washable ink. The design on the cloth is then traced with a pencil. The cloth is stretched taut as the skin of the drum using a tambor, two bamboo hoops the size of regular plates, and is ready for embroidering by hand using known traditional stitches. Lumban is said to be known for a particular design feature called the calado, which are holes rimmed with embroidery. Usual designs are floral and geometric.
After the embroidery, the men would stretch out the piece of cloth on the bastidor, a large rectangular bamboo frame; wash it with detergent and water; and let it dry in the sun.
Most of the embroidery knowledge and material are primarily for the making of the barong Tagalog, literally shirt or dress of the Tagalog people, which has become the official and national formal wear for men. The festival actually was first called Barong Tagalog Festival, held from April 29 to May 3 in 1996. It was soon renamed and moved to September to celebrate also the foundation day of the town, one of the oldest in the province, on September 22.
The embroiderers have regular design patterns. Popular is the pitchera, design forming into a U or two vertical rows on the front of the dress. Batok, literally “nape,” has embroidery concentrated on the upper portion of the dress, while Chinepa has it on the lower portion. Raya features the U pattern as well as stripes of embroidery. “Scattered” has embroidered designs scattered all over the dress, and a more concentrated version is called “All Over.”
The fabrics usually used for the barong Tagalog are the cheaper cotton and linen; the mid-range jusi, imported from Hong Kong and can be bought in the markets of Divisoria in Manila; and the expensive piña, made from pineapple fibers from the Visayan province of Aklan.
Del Moral said that it will take about three days to make a barong Tagalog. She said the cheapest barong Tagalog can be bought at P550. These are usually used as office uniforms. The most expensive is around Php5,000, made from piña. For gowns, an embroidered cloth sells for Php7,000 while a made gown is Php12,000. Wedding gowns fetch from Php40,000 and up.
Shops here, which according to Del Moral’s estimation numbered at least fifty, offer a variety of products and services. Aside from embroidery, they also offer painting on fabric using acrylic. Painters are usually paid Php250 a day. Many shops here have their own designers to create the designs for embroidery and painting. Customers can consult with the designers or bring in their own designs. They can also bring in their own cloth just to be embroidered on or just buy from the shops then have it embroidered. They can also have their dress made in the shops as they also have dressmakers. Some shops offer ready-to-wear barong Tagalog and gowns. But the made-to-order demand remains to make up the bulk of the Lumban’s production. Retail sales from walk-in customers amount to twenty percent of the town’s sales.
Lumban’s industry is a specialized one, said the mayor, unlike those in other towns in Laguna from which ordinary visitors can readily buy their products like slippers in Liliw or carved-wood knickknacks in Paete. Embroidery, barong Tagalog and gowns are heavier buys and often considered luxury items. But that doesn’t mean one cannot bring home a piece of Lumban heritage. Shops here offer items aside from gowns such as jewelry cases, cell phone pouches, fans, curtains, hankies, shawls, veils, tablecloths, table mats, napkins and table runners with little embroidered designs.
But still the stars of Lumban embroidery are the barong Tagalog and gowns, which usually come in terno with its distinctive puffed sleeves, made popular by former First Lady Imelda Marcos. Many prominent people visit Lumban for these. In Del Moral’s office and shop, pictures of famous personalities and celebrities hang on the walls. Del Moral counted former First Lady Amelita “Ming” Ramos, philanthropist and high-society figure Imelda “Tingting” Cojuangco, and former Philippine President Corazon Aquino as among her customers.

Stitching Up History
The reason why embroidery flourished only in Lumban in Laguna is partly explained by the fact that the town was the center of Spanish missionary activities in Laguna and Spanish nuns brought with them the art of embroidery and taught them to local girls. Spanish missionaries also brought embroidery to other parts of the Philippines. But some historians say that embroidery may had been practiced even before the Spaniards arrived because iron needles were being imported into the country from Chinese traders since the thirteenth century and some embroidery features bore aspects of Chinese and Indian artistic traditions. In Lumban, it can be declared that the embroidery industry traces its roots to the Spanish Franciscan nuns.
For Mayor Paraiso, embroidery is as much integral to the town’s history and identity as its economy. Perhaps, this is the reason that the foundation day and festival are celebrated simultaneously.
Local history says that the Spaniards, the Philippines’ first colonizer, arrived in the area in the early sixteenth century, crossing the Laguna Lake and building a military station and a church of grass and bamboo near the shore. They began Christianizing the locals, and one chief way is holding comedias, plays depicting Christian-Muslim conflict and upholding Christian values and eminence. A sitio in the barangay of Wawa is called Entablado, meaning “stage,” attesting to the practice. The Franciscan missionaries moved southward, away from the shore, and built another chapel in what is now Kristiya, a sitio in Wawa. They moved again, finally settling where the present stone church of Lumban stands. A church of wood and thatch was built. Juan de Plasencia, OFM, administered here in 1578. After the church burned down, a stone-made one with a convent was built, completing in 1600, the first stone church in Laguna. A Eucharistic procession was held on October 9, 1600, and the Blessed Sacrament was enthroned. From 1606 to 1616, the church maintained a rest house for sick Franciscan missionaries. In 1880, the church was damaged by an earthquake.
Lumban officially recognizes September 22, 1590, as its foundation date. Juan Tinauin was appointed as its first gobernadorcillo. Juan Tumbaga, gobernadorcillo from 1675 to 1750, established the different barangays of the town, though there had been barangays before the Spaniards. In the 16th century, Santa Cruz seceded to become a separate town. Pagsanjan also became a separate town in 1663, and then Cavinti. Lumban now is fourth-class municipality with an area of 96.8 square kilometers, the fourth largest in Laguna.
It is not known when exactly embroidery was first taught to by the nuns in the beaterio of Lumban. It is recorded though that in 1606 Rev. Juan de Santa Maria conducted a regional school where four-hundred boys were taught liturgical music and use of instruments. The first music academy in the country was established in the town. While the boys learned music, the girls were involved in embroidery. The music activity eventually died off while embroidery flourished, passed on from generation to generation. Lumban claims that at least one member of families here is engaged in embroidery, and every embroiderer traces her ancestry to a great-grandmother taught in the missionaries’ school.
Although it is said that embroidery had been practiced in the Philippines before the Spaniards, it is recognized that the Spaniards developed the activity and made it flourish. Embroidery was in the women’s school curriculum as early as the Spanish educational reform in 1863. Young school girls doing embroidery were a common sight and were esteemed by how well they do it.
In the nineteenth century, embroidery made in the Philippines became known and available in Europe. The Spaniards even made a bid to pit it against French and Belgian lace. Embroidered piña handkerchiefs were considered expensive in Europe. An embroidered gown made in the Philippines was given to Queen Victoria.
In mid-nineteenth century, Santa Ana, Mandaluyong, Sampaloc, San Miguel, Paco, Malate, Pasay, Las Piñas and Parañaque were noted embroidery centers in Metro Manila. Embroidery in Molo and Arevalo in Iloilo City in the Visayas, where nuns taught girls in orphanages, was notable. It is also being practiced in neighboring Bacolod City. Taal in Batangas and Lumban were also noted embroidery centers, highly regarded until now.
But Lumban claims to make the best embroidery with a refinement and attention to detail that cannot be found anywhere else. Both De Leon and Paraiso said that even Taal conceded to the superiority of Lumban’s craftsmanship. This is trumpeted by the Burdang Lumban Festival.
The festival also puts into the limelight other Lumban attractions and products. Readily accessible are the few heritage structures in the town, particularly the church.

Handful of Attractions
At the town heart is the church, notable for being first stone church in the province, the first Franciscan stone structure in the country and the venue of the first music academy in the country. It is a relative small, august structure flanked by the belfry and the convent, facing a plaza with a few lumbang trees, after which the town is named.
Its short history given by the municipal government said that the tree was brought by Chinese traders who bartered wares from the ninth to the twelfth century. It is also called Otaheite walnut (Aleurites trisperma), a relative of the tung tree and the candlenut, which is used in cooking and extracting oil.
Oil extracted from the kernels of the fruits of the lumbang tree and the candlenut is used for the preparation of paints, varnishes and linoleum; for making soaps; as fuel for lighting; and for wood preservation.
The patron of the saint and town is Saint Sebastian the Martyr, whose famous image is that of being riddled with arrows. Old folks tell that an image of the saint was fished out of the river, becoming the town’s patron saint, and that very now and then it goes back to the river. Lumban honors its patron saint with fiesta on January 20, during which townspeople hold the Paligong Poon, a fluvial procession on the Lumban River. Devotees ride on kaskitos, platforms held afloat and maneuvered by boats, the largest carrying the statue of Saint Sebastian.
Beside the church is the municipal hall, an old one looking like a little mansion with stone first floor and a wooden upper floor. Built on September 19, 1918, the structure still shows some old architectural details.

In the southeastern upland part of Lumban, more modern tourist attractions are located around the manmade lakes of Caliraya and Lumot, which stretch to the towns of Kalayaan and Cavinti. In 1937, American Army engineer Major General Hugh Casey flooded the area, building a reservoir to supply water to General Electric’s hydroelectric power plant, said to be the first in the country. During World War II, the Americans destroyed the plant upon the arrival of the Japanese troops. The Japanese rebuilt it and then sabotaged it near the end of their defeat. Now the area is managed by the National Power Corporation.
Nestled among the Sierra Madre mountain range, 1,200 feet above sea level, Caliraya Lake is scenic with pine trees growing around it. The Americans put largemouth black bass into the water for fishing. Since it was built, people see the lake’s potential for recreation. In the 1970s, wealthy Manilans were lured by the lake, building vacation homes around it. Development and tourism halted in the 1980s with news of communist rebel group New People’s Army occupying the area. But in the mid-1980s, development restarted. Now, there are resorts around the lake offering activities such as large fishing, wind surfing, jet skiing, water skiing, boating, golf, camping, and other sporting and outdoor activities.
The resorts and recreational facilities here now include the Caliraya Re-Creation Center and Resort in the barangay of Lewin; Lake Caliraya Country Club, also in Lewin; CaliRana Resort in the barangay of East Talaungan in Cavinti; Caliraya Hilltop in the barangay of Caliraya in Lumban; Lagos del Sol in the barangay of Kanluran Talaongan in Cavinti; and Caliraya Springs, also in East Talaungan.
One of the largest and more known is the Caliraya Re-Creation Center and Resort, having 7.6 hectares of land area and a hotel of 72 rooms and a spacious mess-hall type restaurant. Managed by Saint Francis Group of Companies, which is into real estate development, retail, resort and condotels, mall management and education, it can accommodate 800 to 1,500 persons and is a popular venue for a company’s outing, seminar and group bonding. Its sloping ground features many recreational facilities like pools and an obstacle course. Horseback riding, rappelling and wall climbing are offered aside from a host of water activities. The management is religiously Christian, thus smoking and drinking are not allowed; rooms are a tad austere; and there is a Bible study session if one wishes.
But these tourist facilities can only hold momentary attention. The town center still remains fascinating, with its folks, rural living and some gastronomic delights. Kesong puti, espasol, buko candy and ginataang hipon are Lumban’s native food items.
Kesong puti, literally “white cheese,” is like cottage cheese, made from carabao’s milk. Made at home, the milk is simmered, a pasteurization process, and added a cow’s inner stomach lining, which contains rennet, the enzyme responsible for turning milk into cheese. With a dash of salt, the coagulated milk is then pressed to squeeze out excess liquid; cut into squares; and wrapped in banana leaves. Some find its way to Manila restaurants or being sold by men, tied together in a pole. Early morning on Gil Puyat Street in Makati City, near the terminals of buses going to Laguna, one can find these men selling kesong puti.
The town of Santa Cruz has appropriated the kesong puti as its banner product with a festival to with it. It must be remembered that Santa Cruz was once part of Lumban. In present-day Lumban, two families are still making traditional kesong puti, De Lunas and the Del Valles in the barangay of Maracta.
The espasol is the tube-shaped sweet made of toasted ground rice, coconut milk and strips of coconut meat. The sticky delicacy is dusted with toasted rice flour. Espasol is also prepared in many towns in Laguna such as Alaminos, Nagcarlan and Pagsanjan. Some say Los Baños makes the best kind.
But Lumban folks are particularly proud of their ginataang hipon.

Shrimps in Coconut Milk

Perly Palay operates a makeshift store at the front garage of her nondescript house along Bonifacio Street in the barangay of Primera Parang. Really, a table was set up by the door laden with her famous specialty, the ginataang hipon or freshwater shrimps in coconut milk. A tarpaulin banner that reads “Perly’s Ginataang Hipon and Atchara” loosely hung by the grill gate.
Lumban hails the ginataang hipon as its unique dish, and Palay is considered by many as one of the best makers of ginataang hipon in town. Balikbayans regularly order from her when they are to return to other countries, a delectable reminder of home.
A large talyasi or wok nearby is where she cooks the dish. If one is early, one may catch her preparing it. A fisherman delivers the shrimps, fresh and jumping, caught from Laguna Lake or the river. Each is about an inch or so. A kilo of the small and slippery crustaceans requires milk, the purest as possible, extracted from ten coconuts.
The coconut milk is let to boil while constantly being stirred. Salt and a one-eight cup of sugar are thrown into white and fragrant liquid, still being stirred. Upon boiling, the shrimps go in, their jumping more furious but short-lived. Their grim death amuses the customers. There is more stirring, and the mixture will be done in an hour and a half, when it turns rusty brown in color and oily.
The dish, not really attractive, is sold for Php250 per kilogram. But what it lacks in appearance, it makes up for taste—sweet and rich. The texture can be a challenge—grainy, crunchy and chewy— with the shrimps cooked and eaten whole, shells, heads and all. Chew well. A dash of calamansi juice gives tang to the dish. Lumbeños prefer eating it with bahao, cold leftover rice.
Palay’s enterprise was inspired by her mother, who sold already prepared dishes, which were well patronized. She started with merienda fare and later decided to specialize in atsara or pickled green papaya and ginataang hipon, her version taking three years to perfect taking cue from customer comments.
One of her techniques is the use of kakang gata, the purest coconut milk possible, and the constant stirring. The old way was to let the dish cook without stirring. Because of her use of kakang gata, her ginataang hipon doesn’t spoil easily, lasting even for a week without refrigeration.
The mother of four has been selling ginataang hipon for 17 years now, earning her about Php1,000 to Php4,000 a day. Her success inspired others to sell the dish in the same area. A block away, Elsa Abadines sells ginataang hipon in her sari-sari store along Tabia Street. Hers has a gooey consistency, perhaps cooked the old way.
Palay’s delicious and long-lasting version earned the attention of the trade and science agencies of the government, which suggested marketing it in bottles. While Palay is still confounded by the idea and the techniques that go with it, one of her daughters, who is her frequent helper, has a clearer idea. It appears she will continue the ginataang hipon venture.
Also eaten as ordinary meal, the ginataang hipon is proudly served during special occasions or when visitors come.

Badge of Pride
Aside from these, there are another couple of things that Lumban is known for. For seekers, Lumban is known for its manghuhula or fortunetellers in the Calabarzon area. Destiny and lost objects are subjects for these manghuhulas. For archeologists, Lumban may be known as the place where the Laguna Copperplate Inscription was found. Found in 1989, the plate was dated to 900 CE and inscribed with an ancient script, containing words in Sanskrit, old Javanese, old Malay and old Tagalog. A document that tells about a person’s release from debt, it is an important artifact that tells of the Philippines’ ancient connections to the other kingdoms.
But embroidery remains to be the queen attraction of Lumban. And this was shown in the festival, whose highlight is the street dancing competition, in which school children dance in bright and colorful costumes inspired by the barong Tagalog and embellished with known embroidery designs. They started at the multi-purpose covered hall in front of the municipal building, marched in front of the church, through the narrow streets, and ended at the entrance of the barangay of Wawa with a showdown. Larger-than-life tambors and bastidors served as props. It was an amusing watch. Their zest and choreography led them to win a prize at the Anilag Festival, Laguna’s “festival of festivals,” last year.

The Burdang Lumban Festival featured the usual components—a trade fair and exhibit; contests in sports, dance, singing, cooking, beauty; socials and parties; and recognitions. Activities related to embroidery included hand and machine embroidery and barong Tagalog painting contests; and a fashion show by the Lumban Embroidery Association. Noted fashion designers, such as Renee Salud, regularly contribute to the show featuring Lumban embroidery.
Aside from augmenting reputation, the festival also hopes revive interest in embroidery. Officials and businessmen here believe while the number of shops increased through the years, embroiderers are decreasing.
The youth are interested in other things, said Del Moral.
Fearing the craft may vanish in the future, Paraiso suggested to the Department of Education to include embroidery in its home economic classes. He said he went to Iloilo and observed the nearly vanishing tradition of hand-weaving in Panay. He fears the same for his town.
Embroiderers here have no formal training in the craft. Passed on from one generation to another, they learn from observing and instruction by their mothers.
“It is as if it is their instinct (to embroider),” Del Moral marvels at the young embroiders’ ability to embroider without formal training as if it is ingrained in their genes.

To give them pride in what they do, Paraiso always exhorts embroiders that embroidery is not a relic of the past but is actually part of making history, that they are part in the making of history.
Alam po ninyo ‘pag ka po sa Sangguniang Panlalawigan nagbabalagtas ng batas ang kanilang suot ay barong Tagalog na burdang Lumban. Ganoon din po ang punong lalawigan lagi siyang naka-barong sa kanyang tanggapan,” (You know, in the provincial council, when they pass laws, they wear barong Tagalog with Lumban embroidery. Also the governor, he wears barong Tagalog in his office) he once said. “Ang mga kongresista po at mga senador sa Kongreso ng Pilipinas, sila po ay naka-barong ‘pag nagbabalangkas ng batas. Ganoon din ang mga pari kapag sila po ay nagmimisa bagama’t sila’y naka-toga, sila po ay naka-barong katulad po ng mga abogado. Ang ibig ko pong sabihin tayong taga-Lumban ay bahagi sa lumilikha ng kasaysayan dahil kasuotan ng mga matataas na tao sa pagtupad nila ng kanilang tungkulin ay barong Tagalog na burdang Lumban. Kaya mapalad po tayo; bahagi tayo sa paglikha ng kasaysayan. Kaya po sa aking kababayan, aking pong pinakiki-usap paghusayan po natin, pagyamanin po natin ang pinamana sa atin na burdang Lumban.” (Congressmen and senators in the Philippine Congress wear barong Tagalog when they make laws. Even the priests, even if they wear vestments, they are in barong Tagalog underneath like those worn by lawyers. What I want to say is that we Lumban people are part of making history because the prominent people in fulfilling their duties wear barong Tagalog with Lumban embroidery. We are fortunate; we are part of history making. That’s why I ask you to do your best and enrich our legacy of embroidery.)

Contact Information
Perly’s Ginataang Hipon and Atchara is at 172 Bonifacio St., Primera Parang, Lumban, Laguna, with telephone number (049) 501-2587 and mobile phone number 0928-32550116.
Ailyn Del Moral’s shop is at 15 Rizal St., barangay of Santo Niño, Lumban, Laguna, with telephone number (63-49) 822-0129 and e-mail
Caliraya Re-Creation Center and Resort is at Lewin, Lumban. Its Metro Manila office is at fourth floor, St. Francis Square, Julia Vargas Avenue corner Bank Drive, Ortigas Center, Mandaluyong City. For reservations, call 638-0515 or 632-1010 locals 421, 423, 284, 586 and 427. Telefax numbers are 637-7027 and 632-1010 local 558. E-mails are and Log on to or
The municipal hall of Lumban is at Rizal Street, barangay of Santo Niño, Lumban, Laguna, with telephone number (63-49) 501-4252. Visit


Queenie Lucas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Queenie Lucas said...

I can't believe those hands are just paid P15/hour when their finished products would sell for thousands!