'Barong Tagalog' – a translucent, embroidered shirt sewn from pineapple fibre and silk is an integrated part of the Filipino culture and has been there in the nation since the 15th century when the coloniser Spaniards brought pineapples into the archipelago.
But it was in November 2015, at the 21st meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) held in Manila, when the famed cloth made headlines across the globe after former US President Barack Obama went up on the centre stage donning a 'Barong Tagalog.'
This fine cloth sewn from pineapple fibre (also known as 'pina' or piña) has usually been worn by royalties and important persons across the globe. Museums hold exquisite piña dresses in their collections – a legacy of a 19th-century fashion trend.
A version of that 'Barong Tagalog' or pineapple silk is now being produced in Bangladesh with pineapples cultivated in Srimongol; thanks to the entrepreneurial minds of Dawood Farhan and his daughter Umaima Jahan Dawood who brought this gourmet couture to Bangladesh.
Entrepreneurship led to partnership
Dawood Farhan is the managing director of the Desher Jonno Agro Ltd. Fibre Resource Centre (FRC) is a sister concern of Desher Jonno Agro Ltd. It is a sustainable manufacturing project that has pioneered the use of pineapple fiber, fabric and yarn on a commercial level.
Dawood has travelled all over the country and many places abroad for various works throughout his life and has been a pioneer in many fields in the agriculture, poultry and livestock areas.
Dawood first saw the beautiful pineapple silk in the Philippines. "It was a wonderful fabric – transparent, silky and very classy. It was not only beautiful to look at but was also very comfortable to wear."
"I got very curious when I learned that it was made from pineapple waste. I was drawn to study a bit more about the history of making this yarn and started learning the process," he said.
After learning the history and craft of making yarns out of pineapple, he thought of producing the fabric in Bangladesh.
"Pineapple as you know is grown in abundance in the Modhupur, Chattogram Hill Tracts and Sylhet area of Bangladesh. I thought if this fabric can be made in the Philippines, why not here!" he said.
His innovative nature and extensive knowledge about history led him to find ways to make yarns from pineapple.
His personal research led him to meet the then and present day chief of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) David Hall at a meeting.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) at that point had their own extensive research on this subject matter and was looking for a like-minded individual who would lead this project commercially but also serve the interest of creating employment in the tribal, deprived and sexually exploited women's communities.
Farhan has always been a supporter of the concept of creating employment opportunities for all, especially those who are deprived and exploited socially.
The two ideas met and merged and the Fibre Resource Centre Bangladesh came into being.
The process of making the cloth
While talking with The Business Standard, Dawood's daughter and the current head of the pineapple yarn project Umaima Dawood said, for making pina fibre, the outer, long leaves of the pineapple are preferred.
In the manual process, she said, they are first decorticated by beating, rasping, and stripping, and then left to ret in water to which chemicals may be added to accelerate the activity of the microorganisms which digest the unwanted tissues and separate the fibres.
The retting time has been reduced from five days to 26 hours. The rested material is washed clean, dried in the sun and combed.
Estimating 10 leaves per lb (22 per kg), 22,000 leaves would constitute one ton and would yield 50-60 lbs (22-27 kg) of fibre.
Umaima said that making pina cloth is a delicate process as it is hand loomed by only a few weavers, it is very precious and scarce, which also makes it expensive.
"The major end use of pina fibre is the Barong Tagalong, wedding dresses and other traditional Filipino formal dress," she said, adding that it is also used for table linens, mats, bags and other clothing items.
Because it is lightweight but stiff, this sheer fabric can be used in any creative design. "There are not many clothing items which are more beautiful than those made from pineapple," said Umaima.
She said that the traditional decoration for this fabric is a style of hand embroidery called 'calado'.
An embroidered pina garment is called 'pina calado'. These hand-woven fabrics are coloured with vegetable dyes originating from leaves, and bark of different trees.
When asked whether pineapple yarn is as good as cotton, Umaima said that "it is a different material, so quite difficult, almost impossible to compare it."
"Pina in its own place is of a very high grade and produces fabulous materials and yarn. It has a fantastic look and feel to it, in addition to being environmental and skin-friendly," she said.
The varieties of cloth
Pina fibre is often blended with cotton, abaca, and silk to create wonderful light, breezy fabrics.
When woven with silk, it is called 'Pina Seda' or Pina-silk. 'Pina Jusi' is blended with 'jusi' (abaca or silk) for strength and sheerness and is less expensive than 100% pina.
Umaima said that they currently produce FRC Pina Silk, FRC Pina Cotton, FRC Pina Cotton/Silk.
"Yes, this is made of pineapple," replied Umaima when we asked whether the beautiful fine, transparent golden scarf she was wearing at the time we met was made from pineapple.
"We have made some clothes that we have worn to many events too, both day wear and evening wear!
Umaima said that it is an environmentally friendly wear, a product that is used up completely without leaving any negative footprints.
She said, "With time, consumers have become very conscious about the environment which is great news for all of us. At the same time, consumers are also very fashion conscious. With a fabric like this – all natural and so versatile in its uses, the prospects are many – many styles, many uses, many benefits."
Umaima added that it is a new concept in Bangladesh, so people will generally take some time to understand it better.
"But once they do, and also know of the many benefits to society at large – we know they will be as excited and interested about the FRC Pina fabric and products, if not more," she said.
About the marketing strategy for the cloth, Umaima said that they want the people of Bangladesh to know that "this product is coming from their own country, being made by their own people and needs to be worn and promoted by its people too."