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Abel-Iloko Face Masks - To Weave or Not to Weave? | Women's Month 2021

Abel-Iloko Face Masks

For abel-Iloko artisans like Agustina “Tinay” Quitoriano’s group in the town of Caoayan, Ilocos Sur, this was no longer a question a week into the lockdown a year ago. The women expressed - dramatically as it may sound - that they would die if they did not proceed with the only means of livelihood that they had. It was not difficult for Manang Tinay, being weaver leader and entrepreneur, to decide. Despite the uncertainties about sales and returns, the need for the women to put food on the table for their families was real, and it defied the pandemic-borne fear and restrictions. 

women weaving ilokos textile traditional abel iloko binakul
Binakul expert weaver Fe de Leon Quemi, 72 years old, continues to weave binakul textiles like the kusikos shown in the photo, so that the textile of choice for facemasks is always available.

The weaving workshop, located in the middle of a residential block in the largely agricultural community, was thus opened. It was a safe enough hub for the women who either only had to cross the road a stone’s throw away or to negotiate a short footpath to go for work, run back home to cook, then go back to the loom after lunch. 

Ilocos binakul textile traditional weaving colorful threads
Fe’s 41-year-old daughter, Lovelyn, only learned how to weave when she lost her small income-generating snack vending business as a result of the pandemic. She learned the simplest type of weave in 3 weeks after she began riding the loom.

Forty-one-year-old Lovelyn Quemi, who formerly did not really bother to learn the craft where her mother Fe is an expert, finally took to the loom during this crisis. Her small snack vending business in front of the school was no longer feasible without the children and teachers coming. Her husband also lost his job as a construction worker. With two children to feed, Lovelyn had to quickly learn the simplest weave in three weeks’ time. By the fourth week, she was fast enough to earn almost as much as the others.

old lady weaving binakul textile in three-pedal loom
Agustina “Tinay” Quiane Quitoriano, 63-year-old weaver entrepreneur, is an expert in weaving binakul as well as the dinapat towel materials that are done on a three-pedal loom. She brought out savings to pay her weavers’ wages while there were no sales during the first months of the pandemic. Her stock of yarn also proved beneficial to weavers in other towns, like Nana Corazon Agosto’s group in Santiago, who could not travel to the province of La Union to buy thread.

Manang Tinay had to pay the wage-earning weavers while workshop sales were zero during the first months. But demand, and investment, has gradually been coming back, though low up to now. Among the first to be sold were the binakul textiles, which include those with the famous op-art kusikos (whirl) pattern and other variations. 

As in the many textile weaving communities in Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte, the binakul, along with the pinilian brocades, soon proved to be the textiles of choice for making facemasks out of abel-Iloko. As seen online, for instance, binakul weavers in a cooperative in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte were quick in including facemasks in their popular line of products where bags, hats, wallets and so on sell so well. Among the pinilian weavers in Santiago, Ilocos Sur, on the other hand, a relative of master weaver Corazon Agosto began a small business of producing facemasks, buying 1-2 yards of pinilian each time to be sewn into the item. 

Expectedly, the demand for facemasks has now waned with the market having been saturated. Regardless, groups of weavers like Manang Tinay’s keep a loom where an expert like Manang Fe keeps on weaving binakul. The rest, meanwhile, weave fabrics for table napkins, placemats, the always-demanded funerary cloth and other customary textiles for the Cordillera, and other items – all indicating that life goes on.

Weaver or non-weaver, thinking up of ways with the abel-Iloko and making adjustments as quickly as possible were far from just being about personal benefit and enterprise. It was about basic, economic survival. It was a collective effort among women who grew up together or who have been raised by each other’s weaver mothers in the same community where everyone is kin. And as ages have proven, craft and kinship merge to see these communities through in overcoming difficult times.


Text and Photos by M. L. I. Ingel, NMP-IRMSO

© The National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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