Warp and weft of life

By Sam L. Marcelo

FASHION designer Patis Tesoro and Romanian textile conservator Florica Zaharia are bonded by the belief that what we wear can be art, as worthy of care and attention as the monuments erected in honor of heroes and the paintings that fetch millions at auctions.

“Almost anything can become an art object if it serves the purpose of the collection,” said Ms. Zaharia, conservator emerita at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and director and co-owner of the Muzeul Textilelor in Romania.

A hemp kitchen towel made by Ms. Zaharia’s mother carries in itself — stains and all — Ms. Zaharia’s personal history, her family history, as well as a portion of hemp’s history. To someone like Ms. Zaharia, who is fluent in the language of fabric, the towel speaks volumes about process, technology, and cultural context.

“We used to take textile for granted. We wear them every day, we use them every day,” she said. “But we have made big progress in bringing textile to a different level, … to the level of art objects.”

The Romanian conservator, who has several piña pieces by Ms. Tesoro in her collection, described the fabric as “one of the finest fibers in the world.”

“I think when you see something as beautiful as this, you get excited,” she said.

‘SALON DE PATIS’Ms. Zaharia, who met Ms. Tesoro in 2019 at the International Festival of Extraordinary Textiles (FITE) in Romania, was in the Philippines this January to share conservation practices that can be applied to local textiles such piña, abaca, silk, and Philippine cotton.

“We immediately connected,” said Ms. Zaharia of Ms. Tesoro, who invited her to visit. “She is wonderful and so complex. Patis is a rare artist who is a creator and, at the same time, is doing a lot of work in preserving the materials and techniques that are typical to the Philippines, which is an enormous, enormous task. She does both — creation and preservation — with incredible energy.”

On a rainy Saturday, Ms. Zaharia, who wore a linen dress and a braided fabric necklace resembling a thick rope of gold (made by a Japanese artist, she said), held court at PatisTito Garden Cafe in San Pablo City, Laguna, a beautifully busy place rioting with color and bursting at the seams with details, much like the mind of Ms. Tesoro.

“The dream is to make this a creative mentorship place where you meet different kinds of people,” said Ms. Tesoro, who wants to make the borders separating academic and artistic disciplines more porous.

A long-table lunch assembled the “doers” (as Ms. Tesoro’s daughter, Nina Tesoro-Poblador, put it) in the fashion designer’s orbit, including an agriculturist, an artist, a curator, a dog trainer, a mambabatok (a traditional Kalinga tattooist), a photographer, a psychiatrist, a scientist, a sound engineer, and a weaver.

Ms. Zaharia occupied the place of honor while Ms. Tesoro — the Grand Dame of Philippine Fashion credited with reviving piña in the 1980s and ’90s — flitted from one guest to the next, entertaining and dispensing wit and wisdom gained from a career spanning decades.

Asked if this coterie was her “Salon de Patis” (a play on salon de Paris, a gathering of like-minded people in the drawing rooms of France), Ms. Tesoro chuckled in amused agreement and moved on to the next conversation.

Within earshot were exchanges on chicken manure and maggots, cotton and circular economy — all over a meal prepared by Jonas Ng, the chef behind James & Daughters restaurant at Estancia at Capitol Commons in Pasig City.

Lunch consisted of roasted garlic dip and flatbread, gazpacho and barbecue elote, pinaputok na gulay with miso aioli, salt-roasted barbecue fish, kinulob na manok sa palayok, smoked duck, and, for dessert, suman a la Hasset (sticky rice with ube and leche flan) and hot chocolate (spiked with alcohol to taste).

Sated, guests filtered into another section of PatisTito Garden Cafe, which, for the day, was converted into a lecture hall equipped with a sound system seconded from a neighbor’s karaoke sessions.

‘PATIENCE AND PASSION’Humidity is the main culprit when one tries to prolong the life of textiles in the Philippines. “Textiles are organic materials and they deteriorate faster than inorganic materials. We know they are very sensitive to the environment,” said Ms. Zaharia.

In a proprietary 30-minute presentation on minimal conservation practices, Ms. Zaharia gave an overview of her work, including the required facilities and equipment (sometimes you need to borrow tools from other professions — a dental vacuum is much more appropriate than a floor vacuum when dealing with fragile materials), methods of mounting and displaying (a good mannequin, like a good hanger, is difficult to find), storage, and cataloging.

“It’s actually very complicated,” she said. “You need patience and passion.”

Ticking the basics, Ms. Zaharia said one should know the materials they are working with; control humidity, temperature, light, and air; stabilize the environment and start from there.

At the end of the talk, a scientist and a curator got into a spirited conversation about silica gel and how its merits as a desiccant stack against its environmental impact — a niche conversation, which, perhaps, illustrates the value of Salon de Patis.

“We have people here who can spread the word,” said Ms. Zaharia. “I think it will be great to see in this country an institution dedicated to fibers. If I can help in any way, of course I will.”

For more information on Muzeul Textilelor, visit Patis Tesoro is on Facebook ( and Instagram (

Prior to joining a contemporary art museum and a small independent press as a publishing consultant, Sam L. Marcelo was a reporter and editor at BusinessWorld.

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