Robelyn Coguit Canto and The Art of Suyam: Finding Resonance in New Fashion Expressions

In ancient Manobo culture, wisdom learned through experience is expressed through the oral traditions of tod-om and gudgud. While the tod-om originates from the babaylan’s (high priestess) own words, the gudgud springs from the incantations of invisible abyan, or spirit guides. Living close to the land and intimate with the natural elements, many of the Manobo’s seemingly utilitarian practices possess a spiritual dimension. Such is the practice of the traditional Manobo embroidery—the vanishing art of suyam.

Today, in the town of La Paz in Agusan del Sur, less than a handful of women know and practice suyam, the art of block stitching that has adorned the traditional and ceremonial garments of the Manobos. One of them is the self-effacing 31-year-old Robelyn Coguit Canto from Barangay Kasapa 2.

She explains why the suyam is in danger of vanishing forever: “Ang suyam ay malalim na salita na ang ibig sabihin ay pagtulong sa kapwa. Hindi lahat ng babae ay marunong gumawa ng suyam, dahil ang espirito ang pumipili sa babaeng p’wedeng gumawa nito. Ang mga espirito rin ang gumagabay sa paggawa ng suyam, kaya hindi ito natututunan sa paaralan.” (“Suyam is an ancient word that means ‘to help another.’ Not all women know how to do it because it is the spirits who choose who can do this. These spirits also guide in making suyam, that’s why this is not learned in school.”)

Robelyn’s mother was one of the foremost suyam embroiderers in La Paz who still continues the practice. But time came when she felt the need to find somebody who can continue the practice, someone favored by the spirits. She gathered all her daughters and asked them if anyone felt the calling to undertake the task. Only Robelyn answered in the positive, albeit with much hesitation.

She tells, “Nung una naguguluhan ako kasi hindi ko pa nasusubukan na humawak ng karayom at tela.  Pero nung pinagawa ako ng suyam sa damit, nagulat ang mama ko. Sabi n’ya, parang nalagpasan ko pa raw ang kaalaman n’ya sa pagbuburda.” (“I was confused at first because I never used a needle and fabric before that. But when I was asked to do suyam on a dress, my mother was astonished. She said that it looked as if I exceeded her knowledge in embroidery.”)

From then on, Robelyn felt the guidance of the spirit. She describes the experience as similar to watching TV—she would see the design in her mind, and when she picks the needle and thread she would know exactly how to do the embroidery on the fabric, almost on instinct and without hesitation. She would also dream awake, sit in a corner, and proceed with her work. Today, Robelyn’s handiwork will have a chance to be better appreciated as she lends her talent in embroidery to fashion components under the Wear Your Culture label.

WYC, as the brand is also known, is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife team of Alvin Degamo and Evita Bunyi-Degamo. Both former top fashion models, Alvin and Evita have decided to pool the vast experience and knowledge they have gained from the fashion industry to create a line that proudly showcases the rich Filipino heritage in the field of weaving and textile design.

But rather than look into the wholly modern process of fabric making, the two thought it best to look at tradition and gather the wealth of materials and technology inherent in indigenous weaving practices. They traveled to nearby and far-flung provinces to do their research, interface with weavers, and observe time-honored methods and processes in thread making, dyeing, and weaving. With the knowledge they have gained, they are able to apply traditional Filipino handwoven fabrics to contemporary designs as they seek to marry the old with the new, the traditional with the modern.

“We use handwoven fabrics such as the inabel from Ilocos, hablon from Iloilo, and patadyong from Antique. We also use the textiles from the Cordillera like Sagada, Ifugao, and Kalinga. We also have designs that use the tribal cloths from the Yakans of Basilan,” Alvin informs.

Alvin, who designs YWC’s line of shirts, jackets, blouses, and dresses, utilizes these fabrics as accents to add texture, color, or a point of interest. “We wanted to give these handwoven fabrics a fresh purpose by using them as accents to highlight the design. These fabrics have long been used as costumes, which are not widely used nowadays, so they are in danger of extinction. By incorporating them in contemporary wear and modern designs, the younger generation will better appreciate these homegrown fabrics and, hopefully, save these fabrics from vanishing forever,” he adds.

“WYC is our tribute to Filipino weavers and to the artistry of our own native fabrics,” says Evita. “Through our humble efforts, we hope to show the world how creative Filipino weavers are. We also want to highlight the fact that these fabrics have a place in the modern Filipino fashion clothing industry—that they are versatile and still useful in the way we dress up.”

Happily, Robelyn’s ingenuity in making the age-old art of suyam will continue on to survive the passing of time and find a younger generation of admirers. In WYC’s line of fashion, suyam and our own Filipino fabrics will continue to embellish the clothes we wear and bring delight both to the wearer and the beholder.