Accent on the ‘fab’ in Mindanao’s fabrics

Vesti owner and designer Martha Rodriguez proudly shows off a bag she designed using woven fabric by the Yakan tribe of Mindanao. Photo courtesy of Martha Rodriguez.

Martha Rodriguez, a champion of indigenous, hand-woven fabrics from Mindanao has always believed that traditional weaves could be fashioned into “innovative products that we will use forever.”

Which is why this Congressional Chief-of-Staff juggles her day job along with being a bag designer and social entrepreneur. Rodriguez owns Vesti Bags, where small totes, sexy slings, and sturdy handbags let Mindanaoan fabrics take center stage. Tinalak fabric woven by the T’boli tribe in South Cotabato, Yakan fabric woven by the Yakan tribe in Zamboanga, and Hinabol fabric woven by the Daraghuyan tribe in Bukidnon, among others, are featured in their painstakingly-crafted glory.

During a recent trip in Zamboanga, Martha Rodriguez got to meet Yakan tribe weavers. Photo courtesy of Martha Rodriguez.

“Imagine how many hours are spent weaving it,” she told InterAksyon, sometimes tripping over her words in her eagerness to talk about her products. “Tinalak, for example, can’t be woven in the mornings. It should be done in the evenings. The fabric is so fragile, it can’t be exposed to heat. And how many months does it take to have the fabric woven? Two to three months. The weaving is really part of the culture.”

A culture that she is passionate about. Rodriguez grew up in Cagayan de Oro, where her father is from (her mother is from Surigao City), then came to Manila in her high school years.

A Yakan tribe weaver, the oldest in her clan, shows the fabrics in a 'showroom' in front of her house. The tribe shares a work area where they take turns in weaving the fabrics. Photo by Martha Rodriguez.

“They were really scared of me,” the svelte, stylish 26-year-old said of her classmates then. “They were scared that I would behead them. And until today that’s really the mentality about Mindanao, that it’s not safe to go there. I tell my friends, ‘O, go to Cagayan,’ for them to really see what they’re missing there. Then they’ll say, ‘Ah, we might get kidnapped.’ Okay, it’s a joke, but it’s really degrading.”

“They’ll ask me, ‘Is there Internet in CDO? Is there water? And I think, ‘Why don’t they like Mindanao? Why don’t they like me? What should we bring out of Mindanao that they can appreciate, so that that mentality can be taken out?’”

Her bags might just be part of the answer.

“‘Vesti’ in Russian means ‘messages,’” said Rodriguez. “Vesti is about sending out messages, telling people that each bag comes from different tribes and weavers in Mindanao. The weavers have been doing this all their lives. How come they don’t get the orders, the international recognition, the national recognition that, okay, this is what they’ve been doing?

“It’s about building Mindanao pride through the hand-woven, indigenous fabrics of Mindanao. For me, the heart of Mindanao is in the fabric. It is the essence of the past generations.”

Aside from being able to support the livelihood of the weavers, Rodriguez can take pride in her ability to bring an art form that has existed for generations into today’s image-conscious society.

“I’m really happy that people give me a lot of credit. Like, ‘Hey, I like your bags, it’s the shape, it’s the color, it’s the fabric.’ They’re not just buying the fabric from the weavers, but they also like the idea that it’s a bag that they can use every day. It’s a very fulfilling experience.”

These colorful bags “add oomph to your outfit,” said Rodriguez. “If you can’t think of anything to wear, just get a bag and you’re good to go.”

“Actually now I feel really insecure about my designs. It’s the way I am. There’s always something missing. That’s why I always want to travel more. It’s how I find inspiration for my next design.”

So every now and then she’ll do some research, hop on a plane (“‘Yung promo.”), and prowl the streets in search of a group of weavers she hasn’t discovered yet. “I go to the weavers, buy the fabrics from them, ask them to make pattern, then do (the designs) from there.”

Recently she arrived from Zamboanga with Yakan fabric in hand, woven by a tribe of the same name. The material is made of pineapple and abaca fiber, infused with cotton. The Angela Clutch is the finished product.

The Milan Sling, the Arriane Handbag, and the Grendell Shoulder are made of Hinabol (abaca) fiber from the Daraghuyan tribe in Bukidnon.

Once an intern for lingerie brand Natori in New York, Rodriguez thought she would be based in the United States after college.

“It didn’t feel right. You’ll always go back to your roots.”

• Vesti is available at the Moana Boutique in Rockwell, Antehill Fabric Gallery in Cebu, and My Crafts in Cagayan De Oro. Visit the online shop at,, or Vesti on Facebook.

Vesti bags made of tinalak fabric. Photo courtesy of Martha Rodriguez.