The first description of the pineapple – Ananas comosus – reached Europe in 1493 in the records from the voyage that took Christopher Columbus to the islands of Central America. Likened to an artichoke, the fruit delighted the seafarers. Too sensitive to survive the lengthy ocean crossing, it arrived at the court of the Catholic Monarchs in the form of a conserve.
Throughout the 16th century missionaries, chroniclers and voyagers posted to, or travelling through, South America praised the flavour, aroma and medicinal qualities of this fruit. Probably native from the interior region of Brazil and Paraguay, the pineapple had followed the indigenous populations in their seasonal dislocations since ancient times. Prized by Portuguese sailors, it accompanied them on their maritime crossings. As a result, it was propagated at the freshwater stopping points and trading posts through which the boats passed. This early diffusion of the species from America to Asia is testament to the high esteem in which the fruit was held.
The pineapple was taken to the Filipino archipelago by the Spanish in the 1570s. On these islands, the local populations had an age-old tradition in textile production, creating fabrics from cotton, banana-tree and palm-tree fibres and had no trouble introducing a new fibre onto their looms.
The island that proved itself most suited to pineapple cultivation appears to have been present-day Panay. In the Province of Aklan the elites seem to have encouraged, from the 17th century onwards, the production of pineapple fibre fabrics, lace and embroidery. As such, the missionaries would have been reliant upon the skills of the local peoples. At the monasteries and convents which were founded in the region, weaving and embroidery ateliers were set up, alongside the schools for the teaching of doctrine, reading and writing).
Regular contact between Acapulco and Manila fostered commercial trade between Asia and the Spanish colonial possessions. The subsequent arrival of Chinese traders and craftsmen in Manila brought with it the expertise and artistic refinement of Eastern weavers and embroiderers to the archipelago. The handkerchiefs, pañuelos and lace mantillas produced on these distant islands rivalled the most exquisite Flemish or French lace in their delicacy. The skilful needlework of these young Filipinos girls resulted in the production of fine woven scarves and embroidery made from pineapple fibre.
Aboard the Manila Galleons and crossing the Atlantic, these elegant items would arrive in Europe where they were coveted by queens, princesses, ladies-in-waiting and aristocratic ladies.
Throughout the second half of the 18th century the supply diversified. The interest shown by aristocrats and European sovereigns in acquiring refined Filipino embroideries led to an unprecedented investment in the production of these delicate pieces. Deemed worthy of society’s most distinguished, many sought to acquire and offer them as expensive gifts. Royal and aristocratic houses were amongst the most prestigious buyers of these exquisite pieces.
In modern times, clothing made from pineapple fibre is a fundamental part of the Filipino identity. At official ceremonies and national festivities, items of clothing produced from pineapple fibre by the skilled hands of local artisans are essential elements in the attire of both the elite and the general public.
Carvalho, L. M.; Fernandes, F. M. & Zable, S. (2009) “The collection of Pineapple fibers – Ananas comosus (Bromeliaceae) – at the Harvard University Herbaria” Harvard Papers in Botany, 14, (2): 105-109. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/250181924_The_Collection_of_Pineapple_Fibers-_Ananas_comosus_Bromeliaceae-at_the_Harvard_University_Herbaria
Collins, J.L. (1960) The pineapple: botany, cultivation and utilization, London, L. Hill.
Davis, M. (1991) “Piña fabric of the Philippines”, Arts of Asia, 21 (5): 125-129.
Ehrman, E. ed. (2018) Fashioned from Nature, Victoria and Albert Museum London.
Milgram, B. Lynne (2005) “Piña cloth, identity and the project of Philippine nationalism”, Asian Studies Review, 29 (3): 223-246.
Montinola, L. R. (1991) Piña, Amon Foundation, Manila.
Acknowledgement: Yohana Frias, Researcher at the National Museum of Philippines