Prized Filipino fabric made from pineapple leaves

Museums across the world hold exquisite piña dresses in their collections; a legacy of a 19th-century fashion trend. Part of the appeal comes from the fabric’s natural elegance. But people have long been entranced with its origins: As the name suggests, it’s made from the long leaves of pineapple plants.

Piña is something of a fusion fabric, says dr. Michael Gonzalez, adjunct Philippine history professor at the City College of San Francisco. Pineapples were brought to the Philippines by Spanish colonists, and Filipinos used age-old local weaving methods to turn pineapple fibers into gauzy piña. Chinese immigrants brought the frame loom by the 18th century, updating the weaving process.

The process of making piña hasn’t changed much since then. The dominant piña-growing regions are near Kalibo, the capital of Aklan province, and, to a lesser degree, Puerto Princesa on Palawan. Both have lots of rainfall, ideal for growing the red pineapple necessary for piña. After harvesting its leaves and removing their spiny edges, piña makers use broken china to scrape away at them, exposing the fibers. Eventually, they use the gentler coconut shell. When the thin, hair-like fibers are exposed, they are rinsed thoroughly to remove any lingering glucose.

After drying, the fibers are tied end over end into thread and woven into fabric. It can take months to produce a few yards of cloth, and even then, the process isn’t over, as Filipinos value embroidery on traditional piña products. Designs vary in style, from simple patterns to florals and figures. The more elaborate the embroidery, the more expensive the final product.

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