*This article was first featured in Issue 8 of Cake & Whiskey Magazine. Words by Glenn Martinez and photos by Jamie Barredo-Paruginog.
HISTORY OF EMBROIDERY. Morning sunshine generously streams through a narrow door inside the home of 61-year-old Lolita Lakbay-Rosales providing natural lighting while she moves in silent concentration over her labor. Her deft hands diligently shift the needle along the beginnings of a meticulously-embroidered piña fabric. In her living room, she is joined by other women from the neighborhood doing the same fine handiwork. They are all related by blood and by profession. They are the women embroiderers of Lumban.
Embroidery has thrived as a lively cottage industry in Lumban. Ask any of the women embroiderers how this needle craft was introduced to this lakeshore town of fishermen and farmers and nobody can give a definite history. Their answers would echo Lolita’s. I’ve learned embroidery from my mother when I was 13. My mother learned it from my grandmother. I taught my daughters and my husband to do embroidery.
EMBROIDERY IS KING. Lolita’s husband, Apolinario Rosales, shares the daily labor by stretching gossamer cloth over a rectangular bamboo frame locally called a bastidor. The delicate fabric is cleaned with soap and water and whitened with starch before it is placed under the sun to dry. Like most family men in Lumban, Apolinario casts his net in the nearby lake for that first catch at dawn. In the afternoon, his coarsened fisherman hands balance a tambor, the round wooden stretcher where the piña fabric is stretched out as tight as a drum, while he intricately embroiders rosettes and floral patterns.
Apolinario claims he learned embroidery by simply watching his wife Lolita. However, embroidery remains the turf of Lolita in the Rosales household. She is the only one who gives approval to Apolinario’s embroidery and provides directions on how to improve his style. As Lolita explains in jest every man of the house in Lumban accepts this kind of set-up because in our town embroidery is king and we women are the queens.
LOLITA’S DREAM. Before lunch, the women embroiderers leave Lolita’s living room to attend to their own families. We will reconvene in the afternoon, Lolita guarantees. In her kitchen, Lolita prepares guinataang hipon, a local delicacy of fresh shrimp, from Apolinario’s early catch, cooked in coconut milk.
Lolita proudly share that Lumban embroidery is equally sought after like the French and Belgian lace for its intricate and delicate design patterns. She reveals that it takes two weeks for her to embroider the size of a medium tambor. On one occassion she gathered the help of eight women embroiderers to work on a 20-yard fabric for a wedding gown. She earned 250,000 pesos ($5,000) for that project, which allowed her to send one her children to college. Lolita emphasizes, I wanted my children to earn a college degree so that they get regular-paying jobs in the city, because commissioned projects don’t come regularly.
STARS ARE UP. There are days when Lolita leaves Lumban two hours before sunrise to peddle her embroidered fabrics, including the works of her sisters and children, in the city. Their products end up in high-end stores as well as in people’s market like Divisoria and Quiapo.
She usually prefers to be paid in cash instantly because she needs the money to buy the raw materials like the yards of piña fabric and cotton threads in Divisoria. I leave Lumban in the morning when the starts are still up in the sky and when I return home after that long day, the same stars greet me later in the evening, shares Lolita over lunch.
A SHOW OF LUMBAN TALENT. Sheltered from the scorching afternoon sun, Lolita and the women embroiderers reassemble after lunch in front of a rural convenient store. On this day, they are joined by one of Lolita’s children, Joy Rosales-Leobrera. Lolita shares that when Joy was still in high school, she helped me complete my embroidery projects before she went to school. Joy is now married and with child, but still helps her mother with embroidery, as she did in high school.
Observing these women push the needle then pull the thread back through the shiny fabric is like watching a talent show. But these women are not competing for who makes the best decorative motif. Their goal is simply to produce the fine embroidery that Lumban is famous for.
QUEENS OF LUMBAN EMBOIDERY. The sun begins to set in Lumban, casting the remaining light of day in front of the rural convenience store where Lolita and the women embroiderers insert the last decorative stitches into that meticulously-embroidered piña fabric.
As a day of embroidery work ends, these women attend to their husbands and children as grandmothers, mothers, sisters, cousins and daughters. In the morning, they will pick up their needles and cloth and begin once again as queens of Lumban embroidery.
EPILOGUE. The day I took a leave from work with my former boss, Jamie, we had no idea who to look for, which house to go for the interview and shoot. Our day in Lumban is all serendipity.
Thank you Cake & Whisky for giving me this assignment because I met the nicest people I know. We were treated in Lumban like extended family. All the warmth and kindness we experienced are felt on how this piece has turned out because it’s all from the heart and I dedicate this to the kindest people of Lumban.
Contact Lolita Lakbay-Rosales for her embroidery at +63.0920-648.24.40 or visit her at 018 Rizal St. Barangay Maracta, Lumban, Laguna Province, Philippines.