SHOP OF THE MONTH: BALAY NI ATONG.
This shop in La Union showcases the products of centuries-old, handweaving traditions masterfully created by various communities across the Ilocos region
This La Union-based shop champions inabel―the beautifully patterned textile of Ilocos.
“Filipinos don’t recognize Abel anymore, because we have been exposed to palengkegrade inabel. There is that notion that it’s handmade that’s why it’s cheap,” says Al Valenciano, who put up Balay ni Atong to showcase and celebrate handwoven textiles made by Ilocano artisans.
But if we are to become technical about it, the patterns and colors woven on Abel fabric are, in fact, a priceless part of Ilocano cultural heritage dating back to the time of the Spanish colonization in the 1500s.
Al, a former accountant, packed his bags and returned to his home in the Ilocos in the ’90s to study and collect Abel blankets from around the region as part of his work for a museum there. While doing this, he gained a deeper understanding of the Ilocano’s life, the weavers, and the Abel. He came across master weavers from various communities: Manang Cora of Ilocos Sur, Manang Mila of Bacnotan, Mrs. De Castro of Bangar, the family of Strong from Abra, weavers from Sarrat and Pinili, and many more.
These encounters brought to light endless possibilities. A blanket’s yarn can be dyed in Abra, woven in Ilocos Sur or Ilocos Norte or La Union, and assembled back in Abra. The material’s application has also gone beyond blankets. The vibrant and colorful patterns are now seen on bed covers, upholstery material, pillows, and soft furnishings. One time, Al even designed table runners for an entire wedding reception.
“I also started partnering with designers, and they use it for clothing. Now, we have textiles for scarves and skirts. It’s gone beyond the home already,” says Al. It’s just a matter of knowing the appropriate design and thickness for each application. Adds Al, “I still want to stay traditional, [stay true to] the craft and its techniques. But it does not apply to modern-day living anymore, so I changed the colors and proportion but still kept the traditional ways and traditional patterns.”
Al sees this as a way to keep the centuriesold tradition alive. At the same time, he is aware that the future can bring about more changes. “Maybe actual hand weaving may not be applicable anymore, but we should own the patterns and the techniques. Kulang tayo ng ownership. We should claim things we know traditionally is ours,” he emphasizes.
Al has been working with up to 12 weaving communities in the region. Over the course of his dealings with them, he has helped professionalize their production processes, teaching them how to make banking transactions and use technology to facilitate orders, and also how to honor their commitments.
Balay ni Atong caters primarily to an upscale local market, but participation in trade shows, like the annual Habi Fair in Manila, makes it possible for foreign buyers to learn about Abel.
Al looks forward to the time when people have a better appreciation of the premium quality and pricing of the Abel. He says, “Precisely because it’s handmade, it’s supposed to be expensive.”