Starweek Magazine

The Rags They Weave

- Eden E. Estopace -

They have been weaving rags for years, and can’t recall now when, or how it started, who originally thought of braiding fabric scraps from factories into a patchwork to become functional doormats found in most Filipino homes.

Along sidewalks, usually near public markets, they sell for P10 to P15 a piece. Long before they found their way into department stores and supermarkets, the rags were sold by ambulant vendors for a measly P1 margin per piece or even lower.

Cynthia Cabrera, a long-time rag weaver from Payatas in Quezon City, says that making rags is hard work. First, you buy bolts of scraps from textile factories, cut the disjointed pieces into uniform sizes and tie them together to form a thick thread, then patiently loop them around a wooden frame to create a pattern.

Each rag is a labor of love for the women of Payatas, weaving in between cooking, mopping floors, washing clothes and dishes, rocking the baby to sleep, bringing older kids to school, and innumerable other household tasks. Selling them is another thing; either to the market to sell to another vendor or they sell them around their neighborhoods.

“Puede rin ho kaming malugi (we could also lose money),” Cynthia shares. The catch is to be able to sell the finished rags at a price higher than the purchase price of the scraps they were made of. Not being businessmen or entrepreneurs, the profit is small. Yet, the women – yes, it could only be a woman’s labor of love, at least in the beginning – have made rag weaving a homegrown industry.

Everywhere in this urban poor community, there are rag weavers. Where there is a need make ends meet, there is always some scraps of cloth to be woven into hope.

That was then. Today, Cynthia and her neighbors still weave rags, not for wiping shoes but for high-end fashion bags for fashionistas here and abroad. From bits and pieces of nothing to something with aesthetic and economic value, from scraps to commercial products, the quintessential Payatas rag has made the journey from a humble mass product to a world-class Philippine export.

The transformation, says Cynthia, was the effort of a Jesuit brother’s apostolic work in the former garbage dump.

Xavier Alpasa, SJ, president of the company that is now known as Rags2Riches Inc., which helped the women of Payatas form a business venture that is considered one of the most successful in recent years, recalls that the “rags to riches” concept came up during an evening gathering of friends over wine and cheese.

Brother Javy, as he is called, recalls that the conversation in that long-ago gathering was centered on a friend sharing his life story, which he described as one of “rags to riches” and his wish to find a way to be able to help others break the barriers of poverty and social disadvantage.

The friend, Mel Vergel de Dios, was once president of the Young Designers Guild. He, however, did not live long enough to see his dream come to fruition. His untimely death had, in fact, stalled the concept for some time. However, in due time and by God’s grace, it was eventually formed into a concrete action plan like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting together.

The apostolic work of the Jesuits in Payatas, which involved Brother Javy and college students from Ateneo and their friends and professional colleagues, became an army of volunteers that became the core group of the present company. What really started the ball rolling, so to speak, was a student donation of P10,000 – his graduation gift from his parents – which became the seed money to help create a sustainable livelihood venture for the women weavers of Payatas.

“Some students had this idea of making one-color rags – instead of multicolored ones sold in public markets – and selling them in bazaars,” Brother Javy shares. The idea was a hit and soon they were joining more bazaars and tiangges, and the one-colored rags were always in demand.

Not long after, they were toying with the idea of making the scraps into products other than rags. They had been wanting to seek the advice of famous fashion designer Rajo Laurel to create something out of the rags. After some time, one of the board members of Rags2Riches was able to arrange a meeting with the designer.

“While we were still talking, presenting our plans and our group, Mr. Laurel was already playing with the rag. Even before the meeting was over, he already made the first product that we are still selling now. He folded the rag, put three buttons and a ribbon and said, ‘This is not a rag, this is a wine holder.’”

The product, now known as the Mark Wine Holder and sold under the brand name RIIR, is showcased at the House of Laurel and sold in some of Manila’s high-end shops, and exported to Singapore and Japan. It was among the many product prototypes designed by Laurel for Rags2Riches as a volunteer, one of many professionals who embraced the cause of forming a social business enterprise for the women of Payatas.

Brother Javy shares that Rags2Riches is composed of volunteer professionals from many different fields, which include accountants, professional counselors, events organizers, designers, finance executives, all sharing their expertise for free. They were all instrumental in making this experiment in forming a social business enterprise work.

There were other products designed from the humble one-colored rag – the Ange tote, Maan envelope clutch, Javy eyeglass case, Memey utility kit, Tony tote, Jane purse, Cynthia bag and Reese yoga mat bag. Currently the products are exported to Singapore and Japan but the company hopes that in the coming year, they can also begin exporting to the Netherlands, the US, Australia and Indonesia as talks are already under way for their sale in these countries.

At the time of the interview with STARweek, Cynthia and Badette from the Rags2Riches office apologized for the delay in the schedule and for the limited time they could spare, since the women were rushing Christmas orders and they were under a tight schedule to finish 800 rags in a week’s time.

In one website that featured Rags2Riches and the business concept propelled into fruition by an army of volunteers, Brother Javy has been described as a “changemaker” for having founded the Philippines’ trendiest social business enterprise called Rags2Riches that utilizes high end fashion for poverty alleviation.” The Rags2Riches venture even won the Social Enterprise Award of the University of San Francisco International Business Plan Competition last year.

What change has Brother Javy and his volunteer brigade created in the lives of the women weavers?

“Madami (plenty),” attests Cynthia, who shares that the women can earn up to P1,000 a week for their effort. There are even families who depend entirely on rag weaving for Rags2Riches for a living.

“Meron na rin po kaming (We now have) quality control,” she adds. In the past, they would weave the rags any which way. Now, the weavers have to follow a strict procedure and even before one can weave, one has to apprentice with the seasoned weavers so they can learn to weave correctly.

“We reject pieces that do not conform to standards,” Cynthia says. That is why there are many weavers in the area who are not members of the Rags2Riches team. “Mas mahirap po kasing gawin yung rags namin at puedeng ma-reject yung gawa nila kapag hindi pumasa sa quality control (It is more difficult to weave this kind of rag and the finished product can be rejected if it does not pass quality control).”

Weaving for Rags2Riches also comes with a set of responsibilities. The women need to attend training on quality control, seminars on values and religious formation, leadership training, workshops on handling finances and running a cooperative venture, as well as other activities related to the Jesuits’ apostolic work.

Brother Javy explains this approach as the pillar of the Rags2Riches business, anchored on four Ps – profit, people, planet and positive influence. The women, he says, are trained not only to be good at making rags but in a holistic approach that encompasses the effect of their work on other people, the community and the planet or the world in general.

“Meron na din po kaming lalaking member (we now have a male member),” Cynthia discloses. It turns out that the man’s wife was extremely shy and so the man of the house attends meetings and seminars and weaves with the women while the wife stays home to mind the household.

Do they need to weave in groups? “Mas mabilis po kasi ang trabaho pag magkakakasama, kasi po tulong-tulong (Work gets done faster because we help each other),” says Cynthia. The collective effort also goes beyond rag weaving. According to Cynthia, in a group session, women usually leave for an hour or two to cook or fetch a child from school, then rejoin the group to resume weaving when they are free again. Somebody may leave a child in the care of the other women while she does some laundry or some errands. “So, tuloy-tuloy lang po ang trabaho (work continues),” says Cynthia.

Brother Javy says that from the present core group of 24 members, divided into five groups, they hope to eventually expand the operations to cover more areas in Payatas and even bring the concept to other urban poor communities in Metro Manila or even the provinces.

“But we need to make this sustainable first,” he shares. By December, the women’s group would have been registered as a fully functioning cooperative, with the women themselves running the business. Rags2Riches, the corporation, would then be a sort of holding company overseeing the cooperatives that would be eventually formed if the operation expands.

Cynthia now sits in the board of Rags2Riches and many others like her have big roles to play in the emerging cooperative. Meanwhile, the Rags2Riches board is preparing another glitzy launch of the second collection of high-end bags for Manila’s fashionable set. This time, Brother Javy shares, it is not just the bags, but the RIIR brand – and what it stands for – that will be featured.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises,” said Greek statesman Demosthenes many centuries ago. It still holds true to this day. Literally, an enterprise is born from rags to riches, all because of simple scraps that women weave.

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