Interrogating Translucence: Biological and Cultural Definitions of Piña
In the last three decades, scholars have written broadly on the subject of Philippine piña textiles. However, underlying much of this work is a modern confusion regarding the term piña and the ways these definitions unfold in material culture. On the one hand, two sets of definitions have arisen as scholars have used the term across their work. First, piña refers biologically to the textile fibers extracted from pineapple leaves. This first definition then extends into the second one, in which piña refers culturally to a specific corpus of fine Philippine textiles traditionally woven from these pineapple leaf fibers.
On the other hand, the textiles themselves render these textual definitions slippery: while piña refers to pineapple leaf fibers, their material similarity to fibers such as silk and cotton, combined with the lack of scientific scholarship on their fiber identification, makes it difficult to ascertain the unique fiber characteristics of piña. As such, while scholars write about Philippine piña textiles, it remains unclear as to whether or not the textiles which they interpret are woven truly from pineapple leaf fibers. (1) Nevertheless, this continual use of the term piña in secondary literature in spite of this lacuna points to a larger conceptual world beyond the fiber that warrants its cultural definition.
A historical example at the Winterthur Museum and Library demonstrates this contemporary material and conceptual slippage. Located in a nineteenth-century American scrapbook are three fragments, which are accompanied by a penciled inscription that identifies them as from a “[b]order of a Pina shawl” (Figure 1). Originally sewn onto the page in which it now loosely lies flat, two of the fragments feature a pink, floral brocade on an undyed, plain-woven ground while the centermost piece remains undecorated with a similar undyed, plain weave structure. Although the relationship between these fabrics and the maker of the scrapbook is unclear from this page and the rest of the book, the remainder of the inscription points to its date and location of arrival in the U.S. “[F]loat[ing] on Penns Neck shore near Elias Buzby’s with other foreign fabrics 20 years ago,” the fragments had arrived during the mid-twentieth century to Penn’s Neck, located in Salem County, New Jersey. However, the description does not make clear the exact location from where these textiles came.
While the inscriptions do not attribute a culture or location to these fragments—save for a hint of their “foreign” character—nor give understanding as to what kind of shawl of which they were originally a part, their identification as once a part of a “[b]order of a Pina shawl” invokes the cultural definition of the word piña, one that unpacks the world of fine nineteenth-century Philippine pineapple-leaf textiles. In addition to shawls, this body of textiles consisted of men’s shirts, women’s blouses, and other accoutrements that fashioned cosmopolitan Manila. In addition to their domestic market, piña textiles also made their way to the U.S. and Europe as a tourist product, signaling a Western awareness of these textiles, material, and culture from which it came. (2) By the early twentieth-century, this knowledge appears to have solidified in the U.S. as the term piña and its cultural context appears in American textile fiber textbooks. One textbook’s description of pineapple fibers even fuses the biological and cultural use of the term, writing that “[s]oon after [the pineapple’s] introduction into the Philippine Islands, the natives began using the fiber for the production of a fine, silky cloth known as pina cloth,” spelling piña in the same way as the page inscription. (3)
Using these “Pina” swatches and its scrapbook page as its case study, this essay will explore the biological and cultural definitions of piña textiles. This critical consideration of the biological and cultural definitions borrows from an analytical framework used for the purpose of textile documentation. Specifically, it borrows from two of the four components of these documentation reports: physical description (identifying fiber, textile structure, textile finishing, and other construction details) and contextual description (historical context, cultural context, and contexts of design, production, and use). (4) In consideration of how the distinct material, object, and cultural worlds within the term piña transcend a binary physical-contextual classification, I have re-casted these components into analyses of biological and cultural use to attend to piña as both a fiber and a culturally-situated, finished textile. Through this material and conceptual interrogation, this article aims to begin articulating piña materiality as a preliminary step to building strong Philippine textile connoisseurship for future interpretation.
Biological Definition of Piña
Within a biological reading of its “Pina” inscription, the scrapbook swatches would identify their material as pineapple leaf fibers. Visually, these fragments join other fabrics whose material had also been identified as piña. To conflate briefly with piña’s cultural context concerning the Philippines, several Philippine embroidered textiles share a similar ecru, undyed color and a translucency that gives appearance to the various backgrounds below the textiles (Figures 3–5). However, beyond the Philippines, this sheer materiality translates in the piña fabrics of other cultures as well. Several pieces from Madras at the Victoria & Albert Museum, for instance, not only feature the same lightweight fabric that results from these pineapple leaf fibers but also, in their catalogue entry, fall under the same material category of piña, configuring this material as trans-cultural as it is denoted by this biological understanding of the word (Figures 6–7). (5)
However, attributing a material as piña is not as straightforward as its biological definition simply defines it. Visual and haptic similarity to other lightweight fabrics such as silk, cotton, and linen have sometimes led museums, for instance, to identify their piña textiles as these other fabrics. For instance, when I first encountered the Philippine embroidered textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2017, their online catalogue entries had labeled them as cotton as opposed to piña. (6) Historically, some Philippine sellers, even, were recorded to have deceptively sold textiles woven from blends of piña and silk as pure piña, relying on the fabric’s slippery fiber identification to deceive customers successfully. (7)
Another textile—a rolled length of plain-woven, blue checkered fabric—in the Winterthur Museum further exemplifies this uncertainty between piña and other similar materials. As explained in RJ Lara’s 2018 Textile Block project, although Winterthur’s Textile Conservation Lab had conducted enough fiber analysis to conclude that the textile’s undyed warps and blue warps and wefts were silk, the analysis did not produce the same findings for the undyed wefts. (8) Among his speculations, Lara proposed that the undyed wefts could be piña. Contextualizing his hypothesis, he explains that piña appeared in the branding of a blended piña and silk fabric as ‘pineapple silk,’ which appeared in the U.S. through contemporaneous nineteenth-century imports. (9) However, without a clear fiber identification, he acknowledges that this hypothesis remains inconclusive. Nevertheless, the existence of this hypothesis attests to the slippery nature of piña nonetheless.
At least for Philippine piña fabrics, one way to determine piña material from silk, cotton, and linen is to look for small knots in the weave structure of the fabric. Unlike the other fibers, which require to be spun in order to create threads for weaving, piña fibers within the Philippine piña weaving tradition form thread through a process of knotting. Rather than spinning the fibers, Philippine piña weavers would knot and connect each individual filament from end to end, creating a single continuous thread. When observed under magnification, all three “Pina” fragments did not show evidence of any sort of knotting (Figures 3 and 8). Unless the knots are so fine, the ground fragments of these swatches remain uniformly woven with evenly-sized threads throughout. Due to the lack of scholarship and knowledge on piña extraction and weaving traditions beyond the Philippines, there remains no other visual litmus test to confirm the materiality of piña. As such, although its inscription textually ties its materiality to this biological definition of piña, the material of the actual fragment remains elusive.
In light of this lack of material connoisseurship on piña, I worked with Linda Eaton Associate Curator of Textiles at Winterthur, Dr. Laura Johnson, and Winterthur’s Textile Conservation Lab to identify the fibers of these ‘Pina’ fabrics, hoping to confirm this biological definition of piña through conservation analysis. (11) Earlier in the semester, I had also worked with both parties to identify the undyed weft of the rolled length of plain-woven, blue checkered fabric, which will serve as a comparison to the findings from the ‘Pina’ swatches in this paragraph. However, while we conducted this fiber identification, we were still working within a simultaneous lack of biological knowledge on piña fibers: we neither had a known sample of piña against which to test these unknown fibers, nor was there available comprehensive data on the exact morphology of piña fibers. (12) Nevertheless, the photomicrographs taken of these fibers yielded interesting results. After we had compiled the images, we found that, even on a microscopic level, the fibers displayed morphologies that were neither definitively silk or definitively bast, which is the fiber category under which piña would fall. Instead, the fibers appeared to fall in between the two, featuring a stiffness that is characteristic of a bast fiber while producing a smooth filament similar to silk (Figures 9–12). As one way to move forward from these findings, testing these fibers in Winterthur’s Scientific Research & Analysis Laboratory would help further distinguish these fibers as either protein or plant, thus eliminating one of the two fiber categories. Needless to say, this biological definition of piña remains unclear in direct consideration of its object materiality.
Cultural Definition of Piña
In its cultural reading, these ‘Pina’ fragments identify themselves with a corpus of fine, embroidered Philippine textiles, expanding the biological definition of piña into a specific, culturally-defined group of objects. Linguistically, this piña describes and joins a list of other textile terms that inhabit this world. One set of words contains the techniques that literally constructed this world of piña, such as burda (embroidery) and calado (a form of drawn thread work embroidery). Another list of words contains the finished textiles themselves, such as, the camisa (woman’s blouse), pañuelo (woman’s shawl), and barong (man’s shirt).
Materially, these ‘Pina’ fragments show similar textile techniques as other Philippine piña textiles. For the ground fabric, the plain weave structure that is evident in these swatches is also evident across historic garments and accessories. While the openness of the weave can vary between textiles, ranging from a more gauze-like structure to the tighter structure of the ‘Pina’ fragments, the weave structure nevertheless remains as a plain weave (Figure 13). As such, in addition to the ivory color and translucency associated with the pineapple fibers seen in the biological examples, the weave structure itself of pineapple fibers also contributes to the fine materiality conveyed by the cultural definition of piña conveys.
Beyond their primary structure, the method of brocading used for the scrapbook's floral fragments, too, is similar to the brocades of other Philippine piña textiles. During our in-situ observation of these fragments, Dr. Johnson commented on the difference between the brocade of the floral ‘Pina’ swatches and European brocade techniques. Within the European tradition, the weaver would tuck and secure the tail ends of the brocaded thread into the back of the textile. However, in the floral fragments, the tail ends become a part of the brocaded design as the weaver of the ‘Pina’ swatch left the ends untucked and loose in the front. In response, I noted how I had seen other Philippine woven textiles exhibit a similar untucked finish. Two examples at the Penn Museum, for instance, weave a continuous, linear pattern of small flowers with rows of unsecured supplementary wefts, their ends noticeable in the textile’s front (Figures 14–15).
While piña appears now in contemporary scholarship to define these finely-woven Philippine textiles, another word existed to generalize this corpus fabrics. Taken from the Tagalog and Visayan word for ‘thin,’ the term nipis connoted this same Philippine textile world of the Spanish colonial period. Sandra Castro’s eponymous chapter in the catalogue NIPIS (1990), for instance, connects a similar web of finished textiles and their techniques, only not with the word piña but with the term nipis. Piña still appears in her chapter, yet it appears not in its cultural definition but in its biological one. Instead of defining a larger body of cultural textiles, piña was only one of several materials that constructed nipis textiles. As such, understood within the term nipis was not only this variety of diaphanous textiles but also the variety of fine fibers that made these textiles, enveloping piña, along with materials such as abaca, cotton, and silk, under the conceptual umbrella of nipis. (13)
However, outside of the Philippines, other objects similarly nuance these textual definitions of nipis. For instance, in the online catalogue entries of several pañuelo shawls at the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid, nipis is listed as one of their materials. Some of these nipis textiles have been attributed to the Philippines. (14) However, while nipis is a Tagalog and Visayan word, the other pañuelo shawls which it identifies are not from the Philippines but Europe. (15) On the one hand, rather than embracing a broad body of culturally-situated textiles with their own descriptors, silhouettes, and techniques, nipis is transformed into a material itself that fashions the world it originally conveyed. On the other hand, and perhaps as a result, nipis becomes a material that can be used transculturally beyond the Philippines, evoking the example of the earlier piña textiles from Madras. As such, although the term piña now holds the world that nipis once represented, nipis simultaneously now appears to join piña in biologically defining textile materials.
Yet if this ‘Pina’ describes a set of Philippine fragments now compiled in a scrapbook in the U.S., what becomes of piña’s cultural context? What becomes of both the Philippine culture and material culture that this paragraph initially laid out? On one level, in thinking about these textiles and their presence in the U.S., piña textiles as they refer to the fine, embroidered textiles of the Philippines also appear in America. Historically, as Manila opened its ports to American ships during the mid-eighteenth century, some of these textiles arrived in the U.S. as souvenirs. (16) As the Philippines became a U.S. territory at the turn of the twentieth century, others of these textiles traveled to America not as mementos but along with Filipinos and Filipinas as part of an ensemble of human exhibition. Both categories of Philippine piña textiles now reside in a number of U.S. institutions with a host of other textiles, accessories, and objects of other Philippines cultures. Critically examining the arrival of Philippines objects, like these textiles, to the U.S., projects such as ReConnect/ReCollect at the University of Michigan and Mapping Philippine Material Culture respond to this scattered material culture with reparative curation and cataloging, recognizing the need to interpret this shifted cultural context. (17)
On another level, there are also piña textiles in the U.S. that do not necessarily take the form of the garments and accessories that adorned upper-class Filipinos during the Spanish colonial period. Beginning with the example of this scrapbook page, while the fragments themselves are objects that are representative of the Philippine piña fragments its inscription invokes, they also become part of a new object beyond the “Pina shawl” through its placement in a scrapbook page. In her essay “Dress as Souvenir,” Linda Welters further lists examples of refashioned piña textiles, including a French women’s dress at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that also complicates a strict Philippine-U.S. cultural hybridity (Figure 16).
Yet in recognition of this material form of contextual hybridity, what modes of interpretation are available to understand and narrate this complexity of piña’s cultural context? If reparative work is being done for Philippine piña textiles in the U.S., what kind of work needs to be done for other objects within this cultural definition of piña? Or, rather, than in terms of reparative work versus other work, perhaps the question is: what kinds of reparative work would need to be done for these objects? Complicating cultural definitions of piña thus invites not only broader understandings of the objects to which the definition refers but also deeper analytical frameworks that can capture the nuanced contexts that these objects reveal.
In attempt to untangle this contemporary, scholarly confusion regarding what exactly the word piña entailed, this essay explored biological and contextual definitions of piña and how objects like the ‘Pina’ fragments impact these definitions. Moving forward from this paper, I hope to expand my thoughts and analysis on these biological and cultural definitions as they manifest both textually and materially. Most immediately, I hope to work with two piña objects that have recently come into the Winterthur Study Collection. Because they are in the study collection and not museum collection, I would be able to handle the objects freely for fiber analysis and textile connoisseurship, allowing me to deepen my understanding of the biological definition of piña experientially and thoroughly.
Both objects also complicate cultural definitions of piña in unique ways. One of these objects, a bundle of three piña shades, appears to employ three different fabrics (perhaps piña, abaca, and silk/cotton) for a lampshade design (Figure 17). The second object is a pair of dolls in Filipino dress that belonged to the mother of Terry Anderson, wife of former Winterthur furniture conservator Mark Anderson, during her time living in the Philippines as a young girl in the 1930s. (Figure 18). According to Anderson, one of these dolls might be wearing piña. Similar to the ‘Pina’ swatches in the scrapbook, while piña appears in this object through the Philippine dress that the doll is wearing, piña transforms into a different object in consideration of the entirety of the doll’s form and history.
At the same time, this examination of biological and cultural definitions presents a complex analytical framework, a complexity that resulted not only from the nuanced negotiations between textual and material evidence but also from shifts in my own personal understandings of these definitions’ scopes and theoretical implications. As such, to move forward in understanding these biological and cultural definitions of piña not only is to work with piña objects and history but also to return to the framework itself, tightening my own understanding of the intellectual, visual, and material interactions between object, text, and concept.
*Abi Lua is a Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, University of Delaware. Her current thesis project explores Philippine piña textile connoisseurship and materiality.
1 Sandra B. Castro, “NIPIS, a Philippine Fabric,” in NIPIS (Manila: Intramuros Administration, 1990), 11. In her introduction, Castro notes that while many of the textiles included in her writing have been identified as piña, laboratory analyses would be needed to elucidate the material of the other textiles of similar appearance. While her essay employs the term piña in its biological reading, her introductory note points to the elusive potential in visualizing and interpreting piña materiality. As examples, see Mina Roces, “Dress, Status, and Identity in the Philippines: Pineapple Fiber Cloth and Ilustrado Fashion,” Fashion Theory 17, no. 3 (2013): 341–72 and Milgram, B. Lynne. “Piña Cloth, Identity and the Project of Philippine Nationalism.” Asian Studies Review 29, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 233–46. In both essays, piña material is incorporated within interpretations of Filipino identity and nationhood, yet these interpretations are predicated on a visuality of piña that assumes a material and connoisseurial certainty.
2 Castro, “NIPIS, a Philippine Fabric,” 19.
3 J. Merritt Matthews and Herbert R. Mauersberger, Matthews’ Textile Fibers: Their Physical, Microscopical, and Chemical Properties, 5th ed. (New York : London: J. Wiley & Sons ; Chapman & Hall, 1947), 392.
4 The third and fourth component is the significance assessment (measurement of an object’s multi-contextual importance) and the consideration of stakeholder contexts (such as the collection in which the object is located). I am indebted to Laura Mina, former Associate Textile Conservator at Winterthur Museum, for this framework.
5 Victoria and Albert Museum, “Skirt Piece | Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections,” Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections, accessed December 19, 2021, Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections,” Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections, accessed December 19, 2021, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O4/O47/O476/O4766/O47669/O476699/.
6 These entries have since updated the material of these textiles as “Pina.” See “Kerchief (Panuelo),” accessed December 19, 2021, https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/340335; “Lace and Embroidered Handkerchief,” accessed December 19, 2021, https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/199025. However, it was as a result of an email that I sent that year explaining the connection between these embroidered textiles and pineapple leaf fibers that prompted the textile collection staff to change these catalogue entries, displaying my (and, by extension, the PMA textile collection staff’s) reliance on the cultural definition of piña to provide connoisseurship for this biological definition of piña. The context of this ‘correction’ thus may weaken this example. However, through this speculative connoisseurship, I would argue that this material confusion is all the more evident as a result of this exchange.
7 Castro, “NIPIS, a Philippine Fabric,” 20.
8 RJ Lara, “Exporting Western Fashion: Open, Plain Weave Textiles from the Far East, 1850–1870,” March 16, 2018, 9–10.
9 ibid, 12.
10 Castro, “NIPIS, a Philippine Fabric,” 18.
11 I am grateful for Textile Conservation Fellow Heather Hodge for her help and collaboration with this project.
12 Originally, to serve as known samples, we also tested a contemporary piña fabric that I personally own as well as a sample of piña fibers purchased from Paradise Fibers. However, in the end, these examples were unable to provide us with the known sample we needed for different reasons. One, the fabric I personally own may fall under the cultural definition of piña, in which the fabric was sold as piña but actually contains a blend of piña and another fiber (unfortunately, since it was my family in the Philippines who purchased the fabric for me, and since they do not remember the exact labelling of the fabric during when they had purchased it, the exact context of purchase remains unclear to me). Second, the piña fibers from Paradise Fibers were much more woolen in texture than the leaf’s structured, bast material would yield, which led us to conjecture that these fibers might have been over-processed. Nevertheless, we gathered samples from these two objects. However, third, because there does not yet exist literature on piña fiber characteristics, we had the samples, but we did not know what to look for in order to confirm even these samples (For an example of this lack of literature in widely-used fiber databases, see “FRIL: Plant Fibers - CAMEO,” accessed December 20, 2021, http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Category:FRIL:_Plant_Fibers).
13 Castro, “NIPIS, a Philippine Fabric,” 12–15.
14 The search term ‘filipinas’ in the online collections of Museo Lázaro Galdiano (http://catalogo.museolazarogaldiano.es/mlgm/search/pages/Main) will yield these textiles.
15 The search term ‘nipis’ in the online collections of Museo Lázaro Galdiano (http://catalogo.museolazarogaldiano.es/mlgm/search/pages/Main) will yield these examples.
16 Linda Welters, “Dress as Souvenir: Piña Cloth in the Nineteenth Century,” Dress 24, no. 1 (January 1997): 20–23, https://doi.org/10.1179/036121197805297991.
17 “ReConnect/ReCollect – Reparative Connections to Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan,” accessed December 20, 2021, https://www.reconnect-recollect.com/; Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, “Exhibit | Fashion in Diaspora,” Mapping Philippine Material Culture, accessed December 20, 2021, http://philippinestudies.uk/mapping/tours/show/7.
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