Weaving the future

In Photo: Ambension Silk Enterprise’s Chris Torrance

thomas-grahamIN a city where thriving shopping hubs such as Divisoria, Greenhills and Baclaran are aplenty, finding that bag, toy, or garment stitched with the words “Made in the Philippines” is a rather more challenging task. 

Last weekend I spent time in the company of Chris Torrance, an American who believes it is time to put locally made products on the map. His social enterprise, Ambension Silk Enterprise, cultivates the worth of a silkworm. In partnership with members of the Gawad Kalinga (GK) Enchanted Farm community in Angat, Bulacan, Ambension aims to revitalize the textile industry in the Philippines by creating meticulously handmade Eri silk products, particularly scarves and shawls.

Back in 2014, Chris arrived at the Enchanted Farm to volunteer for a couple of months until he met and toured two Filipino-American women who were visiting for the day. The ladies wanted to develop a silk social enterprise and offered Chris a rare opportunity to help them. 

Chris had little understanding of—or love for—either fashion or textiles at the time, and yet the opportunity to contribute toward a more socially conscious approach to business convinced him to trade in the comforts of a more conventional career to focus on the new love of his life, silkworms. 

Two years later, despite numerous setbacks—most notably, the entire Philippine population of Eri silk worms became extinct earlier in the summer due to heat—Chris is still at it. He commutes via jeepney and bus from Makati to Bulacan three to four times per week to be with his worms and the members of the GK community he partners with.  

Sharing Chris’s dream for the textile industry is Gino, a former intern and School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED) graduate at the Enchanted Farm, who is now the director of rearing operations at Ambension. Gino manages the worm-rearing operation, harvests the cocoons, calculates the amount of cassava needed, and determines the purchasing of equipment for their new facility.

Though the fast-fashion industry is one of the top waste contributors in the world, Ambension makes sure that every thread produced, even the “waste yarn” removed from weaving projects, will be maximized to create other products like bracelets and necklaces, which are best sellers for students and visitors in the farm. 

“The first important step in the value chain is that silkworms eat cassava leaves, a crop which grows throughout the Philippines. The industry itself is huge, as it is one of the top food crops in the world. Normally, the leaves from the cassava harvest get burned off as they have a high concentration of cyanide. So what we are offering is a way for farmers to monetize their waste. It is not only about the fashion industry; it’s also about the farmers being able to maximize the income off of a single crop. If they raise Eri silkworms, they also get ready-made fertilizers,” Chris says.

While it may be difficult to get the younger generation excited about cassava leaves or worms themselves, Chris hopes the quality of their final product will inspire others to see the potential of agriculture and textiles in a different way.

Ambension hopes to revolutionize the way people see the fashion industry in the Philippines through collaborations with others.

“Our unique value proposition is that local Filipino designers are always more than welcome to come to our workshop facility, see the quality of silk we can produce, and to create something beautiful out of it,” Chris said.

He added:  “We offer them the opportunity for them [local Filipino designers] to design a truly unique fabric. They can design the weave, the pattern, the size, the colors, which is all on their own. They are not purchasing the fabric; they are creating their own Filipino fabric.”  

Through developing high-quality garments that are locally produced, Ambension is trying to change the mind-set that imported textiles are the only option for the Filipino fashion industry.

“We are a small social enterprise but we are trying to do big things and change the way the textile industry is done here. If that should happen one silkworm at a time, then that’s the way it is going to happen. We will get there,” he said.

To know more about Ambension Silk Enterprise and its products, visit  https://www.facebook.com/ambensionsilk/  or e-mail  ambension@yahoo.com. To visit its facility, book a tour at the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm at  http://madtravel.org/gk-enchanted-farm/.

Thomas Graham is an international speaker and author of the book The Genius of the Poor. Thomas is also the co-founder of MAD (Make A Difference) Travel (www.madtravel.org), a social tourism enterprise that creates fun and fulfilling travel experiences in partnership with Gawad Kalinga communities. For comments, suggestions and reactions, contact  tom@madtravel.org.

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