WEAVING LIVES IN ILOCOS NORTE

MANILA, FEBRUARY 2, 2011 (STAR) PINOY LOVE By Bea Zobel, Jr. - While visiting the Aloha State a few months ago, Hawaiian congressman Joey Manahan (who is Filipino and a grandson of the late Elvira Manahan) suggested that I look up a friend of his if I ever visited New York.

He turned out to be the multi-talented artist Perry Mamaril, who also works as a guest chef at the Purple Yam Restaurant in Brooklyn. When I had the good fortune of dining at the Purple Yam, I was not only impressed by the delicious food but also by the bamboo and paper lamps that decorated the restaurant. The lamps are Perry’s trademark. I later discovered that many of my friends in Manila own pieces by Perry who used to be based in Baguio.

A few weeks later, while touring Sitio Remedios, Dr. Joven Cuanang’s resort in Ilocos Norte, I noticed, hanging from the ceiling, a number of large caterpillar-like shapes which seemed quite familiar. These turned out to also have been made by Perry Mamaril. I was intrigued. It almost seemed that various threads from my different journeys were being woven together, an illustration of how interconnected everything is.

It was also clear to me that certain creative expressions can be so distinct that they are immediately recognizable as the products of a certain artist or a particular place. I feel that you can certainly say this about the crafts of Ilocos. When thinking of the region one invariably remembers its traditional products like the abel.

I was first introduced to abel or handloom woven blankets from the north by my friend, Claude Tayag. During a visit to his house in Pampanga, Claude showed me his collection of woven pieces. I was very impressed. Since then, I have always taken time to browse through the offerings of booths selling Ilocano wares during trade fairs and bazaars.

In one such bazaar I was able to purchase a number of blankets from Ilocos Norte. The lady in charge, Linda Simon, was so helpful and efficient that I was encouraged to order a few more pieces. On a recent visit to the Museum in Laoag City, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find a familiar figure, Manang Linda, running the Museum Shop. She reintroduced herself reminding me that I had been her customer. She then went on to tell me more about local textiles in Ilocos.

It seems that the craft was not faring too well in past years. Fortunately there have been revitalization programs instituted since. Today, despite the passing away of many elderly experts like Aida Fernandez, the weaving industry is pretty stable. Training workshops have been undertaken to teach a new generation of practitioners. Happily, Manang Aida has left heirs: Rodel Rico and his two sisters.

Since the heritage city of Vigan was also on my itinerary, I decided to check out the situation of handloom production in Ilocos Sur. Mayor Eva Medina’s efficient city administrator Mila Alquiza and tourism officer Edgar de la Cruz graciously made the arrangements for me to do an interview.

[PHOTO - In the weave of things: Dominic Panela is a third-generation weaver in Ilocos. He recalls sitting on the weaver’s bench and being taught to make cloth when his feet could barely reach the ground]

I was taken to the workshop of Dominic Panela. It was a fairly large place. I met Dominic’s wife, Milagros, who showed me around. I was impressed as everything seemed orderly and efficient. One side of the workshop was lined with cabinets filled with woven products. I spent some time examining the beautiful pieces. My favorites were the placemats in subtle shades. I also saw napkins connected end-to-end which is how they are produced. If one doesn’t separate the individual parts from each other then the whole thing can actually be used as a table runner.

Dominic is a third-generation weaver. He fondly remembers growing up surrounded by fabrics. He recalls sitting on the weaver’s bench and being taught to make cloth when his feet could barely reach the ground. Initially, though, he insisted on finding his own path by working in the Middle East. However he eventually came back to the Philippines. Casting around for a business to invest his savings in, he finally decided to go back into weaving as this was his family’s original livelihood.

Things were not easy at first. There was not much demand and there were times when it was difficult to make ends meet. Yet Dominic kept on going. He introduced a number of innovations. He was one of the first to experiment with reviving old patterns using the ikat. This is a technique where the threads are tied and then dyed before weaving, producing unique patterns.

Another pioneering venture was the setting up of a store specializing in woven products in Crisologo, a road of old houses in Vigan. Today this street is lined with souvenir shops. But at the time when Dominic opened his doors there were still very few establishments.

The bold move paid off. Dominic’s store, which is named after his daughter Rowilda, is a mecca for tourists seeking high-quality weaving. The Panela family also sells through outlets in Baguio and Manila. During a recent trade fair he actually sent down about 50 sacks filled with his products!

I was happy to see one traditional craft that was clearly thriving. Dominic proudly informed me that his very own Rowilda has become actively involved with the family business. I also learned that the local government headed by the untiring mayor, Eva Medina has done a lot to help the weavers. At one point the city assisted the loom industry by supplying thread. I find this very innovative and discerning since sometimes it may be more effective to provide raw materials rather than money, which may be easily spent on other things.

 

[PHOTO - Pitter potter: Pottery craftsman Fidel Go] 

I had the chance to visit another craft establishment, the pottery factory of National Craftsman Fidel Go. This time my guide was no less than Mayor Medina herself who graciously pulled herself away from her hectic schedule to take me around.

Vigan is famous for the products of its kilns. For centuries the city has been the source of the burnay, a kind of dark earthenware. It was truly a revelation to me to see how the pots were made.

We were first treated to a demonstration by one of Fidel Go’s sons. A wet clay mixture was thrown onto a potter’s wheel which was turned by foot. It is quite a sight to see the lovely piece take shape under skillful hands. I was also very impressed to see the rows of finished items laid out to air while awaiting firing in the great oven. I was told that everyone was quite busy because they were making terra cotta shards to be used as lining material for the salt beds of Pangasinan. Apparently, to produce these shards, whole pots were first produced and then broken up! Strange as the system may sound it was quite lucrative. The order that had been placed was for a staggering amount!

The whole workshop had an alluring and mysterious atmosphere with its deep shadows as well as mounds of clay and piles of firewood. What was perhaps the most astounding sight was the dragon kiln itself. This is a kind of oven that is built into the earth. Its name comes from its interesting long and narrow form. It is supposed to have been introduced to the Philippines by Chinese migrants.

Perhaps the most heartwarming part of our visit to the burnay factory was seeing all the bustling shops at the entrance. I think that it is very important that store outlets are encouraged in areas with high tourist traffic. This creates a productive synergy where important sights help generate more income for the community. More than just the pots were for sale. There was a wide array of articles to choose from. There were also food products. I couldn’t resist buying a cone topped with delicious homemade ice cream.

[POTO - Dominic and his wife Milagros flank author Bea Zobel Jr]

Early one morning, I got up for a quick walk around. I found myself drawn to a cobblestone-paved street where a large number of Vigan’s souvenir showcases are located. This was the area where Dominic the weaver had set up a shop a decade ago. It was hard to imagine that there was a time when there were only a few establishments. Now the place is filled with stores. In fact, my only disappointment was seeing that, as the shops began to open at the start of a new day, many were selling the same items. There was hardly anything that was unusual and novel.

Nevertheless, having a large number of shops selling handmade pieces is still a truly welcome development, for traditional crafts will only survive if there is a market for them. One of the most vibrant sectors that can generate a healthy demand for crafted items is the tourism industry. Tourists have the buying power to ensure that handmade baskets and fabrics will continue to be produced.

The key, of course, is to ascertain that standards are kept. This is where academic institutions are needed. They have to work with the craftspeople to document and study the ancient craft techniques and patterns handed down through the centuries. Designers could also help out by suggesting innovations.

I dream of the day when Vigan will have more craft galleries selling fine pieces. I also dream of the day that there will be a crafts museum, like the fascinating one that I saw in Delhi. I am sure with the dynamism that is everywhere in this region, my dreams are not farfetched. It is heartwarming to note that the traditional crafts are alive and well in Ilocos. [phno: some photos added courtesy of Google Photos of Weaving in Ilocos]


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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