Abel: The Ilocano Weaving Industry Amidst Globalization

Image Caption: A Filipino woman weaves in her factory, inheriting a long tradition that may be threatened by the decline of support for local weaving industries in the Ilocos region of the Phillipines.


Introduction

Weaving in the Philippines is not only a form of art for the native Filipinos, but a part of the way of life that may be traced back to before the Spanish colonization. Weaving is defined as an eminent method of textile production in which two typical sets of yarns or filaments are interweaved at right angles to construct a fabric or cloth. This is a process of intertwining the vertical yarn (warp) and the horizontal yarn (weft), respectively known as gan-ay and pasakan in the Ilocos province.[1]

Native Filipinos use fibers from pineapple, abaca, coconut cotton, bark, and silk to weave different products used for everyday life. These various products include baskets used for capturing fish or storing foods, pieces of clothing called kamiseta and saya (a traditional blouse and skirt for women), other cotton and striped clothes they call as rayadillos, and terlingas, handkerchiefs, and others alike.[2] The manner and the taste of clothing — the materials used, the designs, the embroidery, and its colors — are significant among the indigenous groups because it symbolizes the beliefs and rituals they practice. For example, the indigenous people from the province of Abra, called Itneg, believed that the designs of the textiles they use depicts their high regard for the spirits and gods of the nature that provide them with food and blessings[3].

Centuries have passed, and the culture of native Filipinos is being molded by time. With the technological innovations in cloth production made during the Industrial Revolution, the industry of weaving dramatically changed. A large complex cloth making industry that uses automated machines to produce textile has evidently played a huge role for the local community in building up and expanding the country’s capability to excel in economic industrialization. Likewise, the weaving industry of the Philippines, with its beauty, uniqueness, and maintained prestige, shows potential for contributing to the economic development of the country.[4]

Currently, local weaving industries are declining, and thus with the aim of preserving the culture of weavers and the commercial benefits of local communities’ weaving, it is necessary to understand firstly the industry’s development and secondly the challenges faced by local weavers.

The Development of Weaving Industry in Ilocos Sur

The textiles woven by hand and by loom have been developed over time and handed down from generation to generation.  According to Dr. Respicio, oral literature such as “Biag ni Lam-Ang”, a famous Ilocano epic, serves to indicate that Ilocano textile weaving has roots even before the arrival of Spanish colonizers to Northern Luzon in the third quarter of the 16th century.[5]

In her article, Abel: The most enduring Ilocano tradition (2015), she found evidence in oral literature that culturally, a young lady was expected to know how to weave a textile because it was considered a required attribute of women, as articulated in the following lines:

“Ay, nalinis a balasang                            Ay, an accompanied lady, she

ta siam can a lalabayan                          nine skein of yarn

ti inna marugsakan                                 she can finish

iti maysa a sardam                                  in an evening”

 

The following lines highlighted various design techniques used in the wedding attire and ornaments of Lady Cannoyan, wife of Lam – Ang  as well as the special clothes worn by Lam-ang:

“Casta met ti inaramiddan                       So he did the same

ni sinanlalakin Lam-ang                        the man Lam-ang

incapetra met piman                               he put on

di kalsonna a ginalonan                           his stripped pull-on stringed trousers

ken badona a sinombrian                        and decorated shirt

Kken panyoma a sinambrian                  and brocaded handkerchied

tsinelas a binordaan                                 embroided slippers

ken kallogongna a kagrang                     and his fine woven straw hat”

 

The development of textile art in the Philippines has been encouraged by trade with other countries in East and Southeast Asia primarily in the coastal areas of central Vietnam. The geographic location of the Philippines constituted an ideal place for exchanges among various neighbor countries during the period of maritime trade. During the pre-Spanish era, Ilocanos often bartered cotton for gold.[6]

In Colonial period, the Spaniards considered the textiles to be of such excellent quality that they were allowed to count as taxes. Known for its strength and solidity, the Abel Iloko were also used as sail cloths in the Spanish galleons. It is assumed that the Abel was considered as prevalent product that it became an immense opponent of the Spanish weaving industry, daunting its very existence. The Abel Iloko is undoubtedly a depiction of the well-elegant and sophisticated history of Ilocos.[7]

According to Respicio, in the eighteenth century was a high point in demand for Ilocano textiles in European markets. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Ilocano textiles were also in demand for use on Katipunero uniforms and for traditional attire during the time of the late former president Manuel L. Quezon.[8]

She also discussed how the weaving industry survived the challenges brought by the American colonizers. Back then, the inexpensive importation of dyed yarns and cotton reduced demand for local goods. The Abel was no longer considered a premium product in the early 20th century, because a new material known as rengue was introduced. Rengue, which is a starched raw silk, was embraced as a blouse material by women in both urban and rural areas in of the Philippines.

Additionally, the weaving industry was disrupted by World War II. The loss of lives and destruction of resources triggered by the invasion and occupation by the Japanese Imperial Forces damaged the tradition of textile production in the Philippines. In postwar years, the marketplace was swamped with imported fabrics. The industry almost disappeared entirely due to the profundity of machine-made cloths exported to the Philippines. Over time, the weaving tradition weakened as the younger generation chose alternative employment instead of continuing the tradition of weaving. At present, only a few of the barangays, particularly in Vigan City, have preserved the age-old weaving industry. Many weavers still try their best to keep the craft alive and continue to produce more Inabel textiles, trying to ensure that the weaving, as well as the tradition’s political expressivity representing the weavers’ national identity, will carry on and continue through time.

The handwoven textile “inabel,” commonly known to many as “Abel Iloko,” has known good and bad times, yet persisted to be one of the strongest living treasures of the Ilocanos. Many provinces in the northern Philippines practice the art of Abel, and the Ilocos region is a renowned place that continues to revive the local weaving industry in the country.

Unlike in the province of Ilocos Norte, where the production of Abel is widespread in different places like in Pinili, Paoay, and Laoag, the craft of weaving in Ilocos Sur is concentrated in Vigan City with a few families that try to produce and make business of Abel. One of the oldest weaving center in Vigan City is Cristy’s Loom Weaving which is situated in the Barangay Camangaan.

Cristy’s Loom Weaving, founded by Cristy Antinaja herself, is now owned by her granddaughter, Cristeta Q. Atinaja. Cristeta is the third-generation successor of her family business, and for artisans like her, weaving is not just an art but also a source of livelihood. “[Ang Abel ay isang] art na ginawang hanap-buhay,” she said. (Abel is a form of art that we transformed into a livelihood.)

Cristeta dedicated most of her life in doing Abel, “Buhay ko na to, [Ang Abel ay] part na sya ng buhay ko,” she said. (This has been my life, [the Abel] is already a big part of my life.)  Despite the love and time she devoted to it, she is also afraid that in the years to come, she may not be able to continue such tradition because of her age and health condition. She does not have a child of her own to pass on to their Abel business, but Cristeta continus to hope and believe that the precious tradition of weaving and Abel’s Iloco will not die.

Challenges and Responses

The addition of technology and novel machines has caused a sizeable impact on people’s day to day lives and work. In an advancing world, a precious form of art is slowly fading, and the Iloco’s Abel industry is confronted by several challenges. According to Respicio, the foremost problem of the local weavers is the lack of materials. Cotton yarns play an important role in the production of Abel, and the lack of raw materials available in the Ilocos region greatly affects the manufacturing of Abel. Some local weavers have to buy cotton yarns or threads from Metro Manila because of the inefficient production of cotton in the Ilocos region. Others even use imported yarns from China, because the materials are much cheaper and more readily available. But for Respicio, the only solution for this is the restoration of the cotton industry in the Philippines, which not only provides a sufficient amount of cotton for the weavers, but also ensures the good quality of the products.“Lagi kong sinasabi na dapat i-revive ang cotton. Kasi the character of the local cotton noon ay kakaiba sa character ng cotton ng China. Somehow, kaya naiba rin yung character ng Inabel – mainly because of that. Yung cotton material itself is different ngayon kaysa noon, she added. (I always say that the cotton industry [in the country] should be restored because the quality of the cotton here is different from the types of cotton found in China. And because of the use of synthetic cotton in the Inabel products, it made the character of Inabel different compared to the early times.)[9] The main reason why the Abel is known for its resiliency is because of the cotton yarns used, and changing this primary material could also change the quality of Abel and cause it to lose its unique identity. Furthermore, local weavers, along with the help of local cotton farmers who provide them with cotton, would be the ones who plant the cotton, then remove its seeds and craft the cotton into fine threads or yarns using a device called a spindle whorl, in which they would add natural dyes for the color of the cotton yarns. These natural dyes came from the different plants and crops available around them. Respicio said, “[The color] yellow comes from the yellow ginger [while] the blue comes from the Indigo [plant]. And then you add the yellow and the blue, [to] get the [color] green. They [also] have the Sappan or the bark of the Sappan tree for the [color] red. So they have those primary colors; they can get the other colors from there.

Locals have maintained a wide knowledge-base for producing the natural dyes they use mainly for threads. And with the arrival of commerical and sythetic-colored yarns, the knowledge of the process of natural dyes has slowly faded. However, Respicio believes that this knowledge could still be revived with the help of different government agencies with expertise in the study of agriculture and Philippine textiles.[10]

Another challenge encountered by local weavers in Ilocos is the rainy season in the Philippines that usually starts in the month of June and lasts until October. This climate condition reduces the production as well as the demand for Abel. During the rainy season, fewer customers and tourists visit the Ilocos.

In today’s larger market amid the trend of globalization brought about by innovations in communication, transportations, and technology, many industry players build and increase their relationship and influence not just locally but as well as internationally. The locally-produced Abel is being confronted by the emergence of industrialized companies that mass-produce textiles and garments. It has become harder for local textiles like Abel to keep pace with the growing demand of the people. With a fewer families and communities engaged with the handloom weaving, a lack of available labor to produce a traditional hand woven Abel is a common problem as well. For weavers like Cristeta Antinaja and Rochelle Ramos, several factors underlie this problem: lack of interest and awareness about the importance of weaving in Philippine culture, low wages for a job that requires a lot of patience and skill, and the perception of better opportunity for prospective workers in a different field or career.

Respicio  added that the government should market and promote the practice of weaving in the new generatioins: “As I said, it [could] be taught in TLE (Technology and Livelihood Education). At least for [the provinces of] Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and La Union, even Abra pwede ituro (it can be taught).”  She also believes that weaving could still be a full-time work or career as long as people possessed proper knowledge of the marketing, product development, and designing.[11]

There had also been several offers from different businessmen to computerize Abel’s production and switch from the use of traditional weaving looms to the use of machines. The long and traditional process of weaving would be incorporated into a machine, along with the different patterns and styles made by the artisans, for a faster pace of manufacturing. But the local officials, the residents, and the group of weavers continue to resist these kinds of advances.

Artisans like Rochelle Ramos, a 20-year old weaver from Cristy’s Loom Weaving, want to maintain the practice of weaving with a traditional loom to preserve the Ilocano culture and to ensure the durability of Ilocano products. Furthermore, she believes that incorporating technology and machines in the production of Abel would only lead to the loss of livelihood for other local weavers, since these people will be replaced by computers and machines.

However, Professor Respicio had a different view of the potential effect of integrating technology with the process of traditional weaving. She does not completely reject the possibility of developing and using of technology and other machines, but cautioned for traditonal weaving to continue and not be left out.

Another challenge  faced by the local weaving industry is the control of other capitalists in the local weavers, particularly in the small enterprises in Vigan City. The locals are becoming laborers and contractuals of bigger companies. Respicio adds that Abel is hard to do and the materials are also limited, yet the weavers only get paid a little amount for their labor and hard work.

In order for local weavers to preserve their livelihoods, Respicio stated that the weavers must organize themselves into a cooperative to allow them to represent themselves as one, and they must be able to express what kind of support they need from the government and from other institutions. Thus, they could also dictate the price and ensure the quality of their products. Respicio adds that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) should help weavers in organizing as a cooperative. Only then would the weavers be able to control everything that is necessary to keep the practice of weaving thriving and receive the profit they deserve from their work.

The global market is greatly influnced by the demands of the people as consumers. The trends and the choices of people changes over time which makes selling the Abel hard for local weavers, but for Respicio, it is time for the Filipinos to set up their own fashion and style, and it is time for the Filipinos to patronize something of their own.

Government Efforts in the Preservation of Weaving Industry in Ilocos Sur

Several steps taken by the initiatives of the local officials in the Vigan City have helped the small business owners of Abel and their local artisans sustain their crafts and livelihood. The historic city of Vigan is known to be one of the best-preserved cultural sites in the Philippines, recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1999. The city follows and continues to develop a city ordinance known as the Vigan Conservation Guidelines, which lays a set of standards regarding the conservation, preservation, or protection of the Ilocano heritage in Vigan City. This also includes maintenance and restoration of the practices, traditions, arts, and the crafts of the Ilocanos.[12]

Since there are only a few barangays in Vigan City that enrich the practice of Abel including Camangaan, Mindoro, and San Pedro, the former Mayor of Vigan City, Eva Medina, made the practice of weaving, along with the art of pottery, a mandatory subject for high school students in the public schools of Vigan City[13] Ms. Cristeta Q. Antinaja, the owner of Cristy’s Loom Weaving, is a leading advocate of the program; she said in her interview with the researchers that she taught the public high school teachers how to weave and make Abel in order for them to properly share the knowledge to students about the craft. Today, under the administration of Mayor Carlo Medina, the program is still being implemented.

The local government also supports the Abel industry in Ilocos Sur through the celebration of the Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts, more simply known as the Binatbatan Festival, which started in 1993.[14] The festivities include Binatbatan street dancing, Abel fashion shows, trades and exhibits, traditional games, religious rituals, parades and more. Binatbatan street dancing began in 2002, inspired by weaving practice and folk dance, and the act imitates how Ilocanos traditionally beat cotton pods using two bamboo sticks to separate or release the cotton fluff from the seed, mirrored in dancers’ gracefully swaying with the beat of drums.[15] This celebration influences more people to appreciate the art of weaving, particularly the distinct designs and styles of Abel.

The One-Town, One Product or simply known as OTOP Philippines is a program plan for Micro-, Small- and Medium-scale enterprises (MSMEs) that aims to attain comprehensive local and regional economic growth. The program enables locals to innovate, manufacture and market distinctive or culturally-rooted products or services. This program was further developed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and is now called “OTOP Next Generation,” which includes an initiative for public and private institutions to give assistance to different MSMEs, allowing them to innovate their products and services in terms of quality, design, marketability, manufacturing capacity, and development of brand name.[16]

The OTOP program in the Ilocos Sur is organized by the local government officials in the different towns and municipalities along with the help of the DTI. The products chosen and determined by these local towns and municipalities will get support and a certain budget from the government.[17]

One of the other challenges encountered by the local producers of Abel is the lack of raw materials they needed, such as cotton threads. Today, the cotton industry in the Philippines is facing a major setback. Despite the favorable soil and climate conditions, local cotton farmers cannot grow enough cotton. The local government is attempting to revive the cotton industry to help the residents and communities to sustain their livelihood in Abel, as well as to provide additional support for the farmers. The Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilDIFA), an agency under the Department of Agriculture, is currently developing a five-year program to increase the production of cotton in the Philippines, targeting the expansion of available land area for the cultivation of cotton seed. The potential provinces to be used for the cotton production include the region of Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur along with the regions of Pangasinan, La Union, Panay, Sarangani, and South Cotabato. The implementation of this program could be a big help to the aim of expanding and promoting the weaving industry in the country, particularly the Abel of the Ilocos region[18].

Conclusion

One of the main objectives of this study was to know and understand the development of Abel or the Ilocano weaving industry in the Ilocos Sur. The practice started even before the era of Spanish colonization, and the peak of the Abel industry in Ilocos dates back to between the 16th century and the late 19th century. A large demand for Ilocano textiles in the European market strengthened the economy of the Ilocos region. However, with the entry of other nations in the Philippines, the demand for local textiles decreased, and Abel was no longer the premium product of the Ilocos. Furthermore, the practice of weaving was further challenged during World War II, and afterwards, the weaving industry continue to decline because of the destruction of weaving looms and the lack of raw materials such as cotton.

At present time, cheap, mass-produced textiles are being imported into the Philippines; and because of the quantity and cheap price, they have greatly affected the demand for and production of local textiles. Today, there are only few towns that practice the art of weaving in the Ilocos Sur: the city of Vigan, Camangaan, Mindoro, and San Pedro.

The second objective of this study was to identify the underlying challenges in the weaving industry of Ilocos Sur and how the locals or the communities cope with these. These challenges are (1) the lack of raw materials; (2) the climate condition; (3) the mass-produced textiles imported by China; (4) the lack of man power; (5) the advances in technology and machineries; lastly, (6) the role of capitalism in lives of local weavers.

In order to preserve the practice of weaving in their communities, locals in Vigan City, Ilocos Sur tried to incorporate ready-made threads for the production of Abel from Metro Manila by importing synthetic threads from China due to lower prices. With the tight competition in the market brought about by the mass-produced textiles imported in the country, the artisans of Abel attempted to mobilize new designs and styles and to ensure thatthe quality of their products could compete with the other imported textiles in the Philippines. Despite the offers to modernize the process of weaving in the local communities, they resisted, as the locals wanted to preserve their identity and the heritage of the Ilocanos. Furthermore, the use of machinery in producing Abel would take away the livelihood of laborers.

Lastly, the third objective of this study was to determine the programs and policies implemented by the local government to help the communities in preserving and enriching their crafts and livelihood. Some of these actions taken by the local government include: (1) the development of city ordinances such as the Vigan Conservation Guidelines, which provides a set of standards regarding the conservation of the Ilocano culture; (2) the inclusion of the subject of weaving in the curriculum of the high school students in the public school of Vigan City; (3) the celebration of the Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts which aims to exhibit and promote the culture and arts of the Ilocos Sur; (4) the creation of the One Town, One Product (OTOP) program, allowing the local communities to choose and determine a particular product that is rooted in their culture, so they can receive budgeted support from the government for product development and marketing; (5) the action plan of the local government along with the help of the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilDIFA), which aims to revive and increase the production of cotton in the country to help local weavers develop their products.

Based on the findings and conclusions presented, the following recommendations are suggested:

  1. The researchers recommend that every weaver must not let themselves be delimited by the capitalist, conducting product development without reliance upon business owners.
  2. The researchers recommend giving proper training to every aspiring weaver, because any new employee should be well trained to produce excellent abel products.
  3. The researchers recommend that weavers revive the cotton plantation model, because cotton clothing is valued for its abundance, absorbency, and strength.
  4. The researchers recommend that every single community in the Ilocos, particularly in Ilocos Sur region, organize themselves into cooperatives, in a way that allows them to set their own price, quality control and create their own unique designs.
  5. The researchers recommend that all living communities in the Ilocos region must continue to use traditional handlooms rather than machine looms. Also, they should improve design techniques through innovation to incorporate emerging fashion trends.
  6. The researchers recommend that the government must give increased recognition and incentives to Filipino traditional craftsmen whose skills have reached a high level of technical and artistic excellence.
  7. The researchers recommend that the government make some strategy for marketing the weaving and give its utmost support to every surviving weaving community.
  8. The researchers recommend that the government create more agencies that can assist every weaver.
  9. The researchers recommend that consumers give local products like “Abel Iloko” a chance. Patronizing Abel products will keep the weaving industry alive and creates livelihood for the weavers.

About the Authors

Renelyn Malbog is a writer, traveler, and an art enthusiast from the Philippines. She’s currently finishing her bachelor’s degree in AB International Studies at the University of the East, Manila. Her interest also includes understanding the globally diverse culture and politics of different countries.

Francis Co is a part time language instructor and freelancer, currently in the last year of his undergraduate studies in the University of East. He is interested in languages, business and economics.

Camille Comia is a positive self-starter and goal oriented student, currently in the last year of her undergraduate studies in University of the East-Manila, Philippines. She is interested with history, business and social sciences.

Chelsea Crisostomo is a 19-years-old Filipino student taking up AB International Student in University of the East – Manila. She is working on her Major full time and also has interests in the field of agriculture and business.

Karlo Cuare is a wanderer; and he is currently in the last year of his undergraduate studies in University of the East. He is interested in History, Tourism and Languages.

Aimee Dizon is a faculty member and a professor at the University of the East teaching History and subjects in International Studies. She’s currently completing her doctor’s degree. Also, the adviser of this study.


Endnotes

[1] Valencianco, A., Regalado, J. & et. al. 2015. INABEL: Philippine Textile from Ilocos Region. Makati City, Philippines: ArtPostAsia.

[2] Montinola, L. R. (1991). Piña. Makati City: AMON Foundation pg.16

[3] Flores, P & De la Paz, C. (1997). Sining at Lipunan. University of the Philippines, Manila pg.97

[4] Rozantals, J. 2018. Weaving History

[5] From the Interview with Dr. Norma Respicio, 2018

[6] Respicio. 2014. Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave.

[7] Respicio. 2014. Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave. pp.12-14

[8] Respicio. 2014. Journey of a Thousand Shuttles: The Philippine Weave.

[9] From the Interview with Dr. Norma Respicio, 2018

[10] From the Interview with Dr. Norma Respicio, 2018

[11] From the Interview with Dr. Norma Respicio, 2018

[12] Villalon, n.d. The Historic Town of Vigan

[13] Chua citing Medina, 2015

[14] Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts, n.d.

[15] Guquib, 2012.Binatbatan Festival: A Festival of Cottons and Fabric

[16] One Town, One Product (OTOP) – Philippines , n.d.

[17] Parilla, 2013.Economic Promotion through One-Town One Product

[18] Miraflor, M. (2015). Gov’t plans to revive industry with production of BT cotton. Manila Bulletin.


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