By: Christy Mabute
Textile Art and the Abra Weaving Tradition
Weaving is one of the Filipinos' most enduring ethnic handicrafts. Going as far back as the pre-Spanish era, the natives have already established weaving not just as an art and livelihood but also as a daily part of life. Skillful hands brought to life different fabrics and cloth and transformed it into tribal wear, blankets and other pieces of clothing like the saya for women and loincloth for men.
Weaving also has spiritual roots. Rituals before weaving are commonplace and often involve giving homage to Pinaing, the goddess of women weavers, by sacrificing, praying and dancing. Folklore has it that Pinaing taught the Itnegs how to weave through dreams.
Just like a precious heirloom, the tradition of weaving is passed from one generation to another.
The epicenter of the weaving industry is in the small town of Abra. Majority of Abreños are the Itnegs or the Tingguians and they are renowned for their loom weaving tradition. The name Itneg comes from Ilocano words iti uneg, which means interior and is in reference to the Itneg people's original settlement in the middle of Abra.
The indigenous Tingguians have a strong political and cultural background. Caught in the middle of a crossfire between the natives and Spaniards, the Tingguians were confronted with a threat that could have extinguished their craft, ethnicity and tradition. To preserve their culture, the Tingguians moved from the lowlands of Narvacan and Santa in Ilocos Sur where they originated to the uplands of Cordillera which now became their present home.
Weaving is a method of textile production in which two distinct sets of yarns or threads are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth. The longitudinal threads are called the warp and the lateral threads are the weft or filling. Hand-weaving involves working with one or more continuous weft threads or pasakan (horizontal threads) passing through the warp or gan-ay(vertical threads) row upon row along the length of the fabric.
With Abra traditional hand-weaving, it starts with winding the thread, warping, setting the loom, and then the tedious weaving process begins. Because it is manually done by hand, weaving each textile sometimes takes several weeks to complete.
Different weaving techniques commonly used by the weavers are basic, plain weave and the multi-heddle weave (binetwagan or tinumballitan). The pinilian is done using the scattered and continuous supplementary weft techniques while there's the binakul or the double-toned basket weave.
Aside from making their own fabric, the indigenous Tingguians and Itnegs also produce their own natural dyes to color their fabrics with. They use the ikat dyeing technique that employs tie-resist on the yarns.
Dyes are extracted from plants, tree barks, flowers and fruits. For instance, the yellow color comes from the yellow ginger or the medicinal tawa-tawa plant. The achuete fruit is used for orange dyes while the gabi or taro root crop creates a yellow green color. Tree barks are also good sources of dye with the brown color being produced by narra and mahogany and black by the talisay fruit. The sappang bark is also good for pinkish to reddish hues. For different shades of blue to violet, the malatayun or the native indigo plant is the best source.
These vibrant colors are what breathes life to the woven fabric to make the patterns and designs stand out.
Tools of the Trade
The provinces of Ilocos and Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) are renowned for their handweaving and textile tradition. Kapas or cotton is the primary material used for the trade and the machinery used is the pedal loom or pangablan.
The use of the impaod or backstrap loom is also widely used in the region and traditional loom weaving is utilized to produce fine woven fabrics popularly known as abel or Abel Iloko. It also goes by another name, Inabel, which means woven cloth from the Ilocos region. So what's in a name? “Abel” means “weave” in Ilocano; “Inabel” means “woven” and “Agab Abel'' pertains to loom-weavers.
During its heyday, the Abel Iloko had a reputation for being strong, sturdy and functional that the colonizers even used this as sails for their galleon ships and as tax payments. It was also during this time that our lands yielded the best products so that the local variety of cotton barbadense was hailed as one of the best in the world and it gave the abel its Herculean strength.
Weaves and Threads
Pinilian or brocade weave is a grid style weaving pattern which uses sticks inserted on selected warp threads to create designs that appear floating on the threads or fabrics. To achieve the complicated and elaborate design of the pinilian, a special technique has to be used called the impalagto and this involves the manipulation of the warp and weft threads. It's motifs and designs range from animal shapes like eagle, deer and lizard, nature-inspired flowers and plants to the sinan-tao or human figures. Traditional colors for the pilian are red, white, and yellow.
The symbols have meanings and are believed to provide protection from evil spirits and are used as status symbols.
Binakol ( twill) is characterized by an interlocked geometric pattern of squares and rectangles. It's psychedelic optical effect gives the illusion of a radiating or expanding movement. The patterns are said to be reminiscent of water movements and these include the waves, alipugpog (whirlwinds), or kourikos (whirlpools), or pinalpal-id (fans) or the less common tinaleb or sinan paddak ti pusa (cat's paw print).
Like the pinilian, the binakol is also worn to indicate social hierarchy and the dizzying patterns and weaves are believed to ward off malevolent spirits.
Modernization has ushered in a lot of advancements but unfortunately, it has not been kind to the traditional weaving industry. This beautiful fabric of our culture is slowly slipping away but we can still revive it by creating awareness and promoting these handwoven products to the world. Barong Warehouse is a proud catalyst of change and you can visit the Makabayan Wear section with its lovely collection of scarves, face masks and necklaces that bore the interesting designs and patterns of handicrafts from different indigenous groups in the Philippines. Check out this Kalinga Infinity scarf which shows the traditional Kalinga color combination of red and black stripes or this colorful Abra Rainbow Shawl.
These textiles are sourced directly from small indigenous communities and patronizing their products will help so much to sustain their livelihood. At the same time, this will also carry on the heritage and tradition of Filipino craftsmanship.
Patriotism has never looked this good.
(2018). Abel: The Ilocano Weaving Industry Amidst Globalization. The Yale Review of International Studies. http://yris.yira.org/comments/2620
Celdran. (2017). So you think you know your local weaves? Noli Soli. https://nolisoli.ph/26741/philippine-weaves-habi/
(2020).ABRA: THE NATURAL DYE CAPITAL OF THE PHILIPPINES. Narra Studio. https://narrastudio.com/blogs/journal/abra-the-natural-dye-capital-of-the-philippines
Tingguians Weaving Traditions. Traveller on Foot. https://traveleronfoot.wordpress.com/category/abra/