Nipis a Worldclass Traditional Philippine Textile Art
High levels of Filipino ingenuity are alive in the textile store rooms of museums in different parts of the world. In the 19th century, European and American tourists and businessmen were known to have taken piña embroideries as souvenirs from the Philippines. Coming from developed nations with well endowed museums, heirs may have turned them over to their local ethnographic or textile museum.
In the National Museum of Decorative Art in Madrid, these textile artworks from the Philippines are known as nipis. A term defined by the Spanish-English dictionary as “fine cloth,” the word originating from the Spanish colony, Filipinas. Despite the limited written reference available on Philippine textile history, nipis did surface in 19th century accounts.
In weaving fabrics as fine and transparent as piña, the combination of fibers available to weavers then was infinite. A French researcher was confused as to the differences between jusi, piña, sinamay, etc. and found our later that even locals could not identify fibers in a cloth accurately. Weavers did not follow a formula, so to speak, and available resources or personal choices made a nipis fabric one of a kind. It was convenient to call all these fine and transparent fabrics nipis.
Interestingly, nipis articles made for the foreign market were considerably different. One reason is that the form of clothing had to be modified for a Western buyer – whether it was a collar, a child’s summer dress or a scarf. All were done in white embroidery and calado (open work) patterns which later identified Manila embroidery. This style inspired the inventor of the Swiss Schiffli machine to manufacture a type of lace called “Manila work” (1870s). The textile museum in St. Gallen, Switzerland had this information documented along with a superb collection of Philippine nipis embroidery acquired from a textile manufacturer Leopold Ikle.
The Victoria and Albert Museum of London had an equally good collection of nipis, in terms of size, variety and quantity. A few were known to be presents of Edward Parr, an English businessman in Manila, to the then Princess Alexandra. At the time, she was to wed the future Edward VII.
At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an exquisite child’s dress with delicate floral borders simulating lace was given by an American family, also in business in the Philippines.
The collections found outside of the Philippines open a range of embroidery designs unfamiliar to a contemporary Filipino. One type looked European and only after close inspection would one discover details in Filipino “handwriting.” A second type was obviously made for the tourist market – handkerchiefs embroidered with native scenes, particularly with coconut trees and bahay kubo. Some were as detailed as prized pen-and-ink drawings with light and shadow effects. The point of the embroiderer, however, was to show off six to ten calado designs in a series of ovals or triangles lining the borders.
To reproduce these designs would be quite a punishment to today’s embroiderer. It requires pulling out fibers from a certain area of the fabric, strengthening the remaining ones with stitches and then linking them together with various intricate designs.
A whole set of nipis fabrics is displayed at the Intramuros Administration. Magnificently worked and preserved, some of these were meant as gifts to Queen Isabel of Spain. However, she abdicated the throne in 1870 and the pieces were never sent to her.
Examining a good piece of embroidery through a jeweler’s lens is fascinating. Follow the needle through the fabric so fine. Note the precise outlines of stitches, and then go through layers of calado designs. It is mind boggling how the anonymous weavers and embroiderers of the time churned out works of skill, precision, and patience.