With Manila’s top de­sign­ers, Abra’s very own abel weave branches out from the con­fines of tra­di­tional garb and tran­si­tions to the next gen­er­a­tion as an iden­tity of Filipino life that ev­ery­one can wear.


Manila’s top de­sign­ers give new life to abel, a quintessen­tially Filipino loom.

It is an iden­tity. The abel is usu­ally for spe­cial oc­ca­sions when made into cloth­ing, like cer­e­mo­nial ap­parel,” says Abra Gov­er­nor Joy Ber­nos of her prov­ince’s weave, a prac­tice echoed for the most part through­out mod­ern Philip­pines, each re­gion bear­ing some­thing of their own an­ces­tors.

It is the rea­son that brought her to Ivar Aseron’s ate­lier, ask­ing the de­signer to fash­ion a dress out of the fab­ric. Ev­ery tribe’s weave is as unique as they are scin­til­lat­ing, but the Abra abel, with its muted hues and del­i­cate lines, in­stantly piqued Ivar’s cu­rios­ity. “I brought up the idea of pro­mot­ing it by fea­tur­ing it in a fash­ion show to help the com­mu­ni­ties in­volved in weav­ing it by bring­ing in more busi­ness for them,” he re­calls. Dur­ing Abra’s Cen­ten­nial Cel­e­bra­tion, the fash­ion show “Mga Obra ng Abra: Katu­tubong Ku­lay” was staged. As part of one’s iden­tity, why can’t it be em­braced daily?

Like Ivar, some of the other top Manila de­sign­ers that par­tic­i­pated in the show— Jo­jie Lloren, Den­nis Lus­tico and Joey Sam­son—are no strangers to work­ing with lo­cal and in­dige­nous fab­ric. Ivar has worked with jusi and piña ever since he started de­sign­ing; jusi has fig­ured promi­nently in his past col­lec­tions, giv­ing a soft­ness to his min­i­mal sil­hou­ettes.

Den­nis and Joey al­ways work with lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, but are con­fined to vari­a­tions of piña, abaca and jusi, as well as ba­nana for Joey, to meet their clients’ re­quire­ments to at­tend wed­dings; for politi­cians, some­thing to wear to gov­ern­ment func­tions where our na­tional cos­tume gets some time to shine.

Jo­jie is ex­pe­ri­enced in work­ing with weaves, such as Iloilo’s hablon and a num­ber of Min­danao weaves. “It is my duty and re­spon­si­bil­ity as a Filipino de­signer to use and pro­mote in­dige­nous fab­rics,” he says. “Obra ng Abra” isn’t his first en­counter with abel either. For a past museum ex­hi­bi­tion high­light­ing weaves, he cre­ated an in­stal­la­tion of three elab­o­rate gowns in one con­tin­u­ous roll of bi­nakol, the Abra abel’s more cir­cuitous Ilo­cano neigh­bor, dif­fer­en­ti­ated by its pat­tern of squares against a grid.

In­deed, the weavers of La Paz in Abra trace their his­tory to set­tlers from Ilo­cos Sur who im­parted their craft. The Abreños, in turn, gave life to their own abel. There are tri­color stripes like kan­tarines and tiniri, which the de­sign­ers all grav­i­tated to for their five-look col­lec­tions, to the more in­tri­cate pat­terns de­pict­ing their bu­colic life, usu­ally re­served for home decor.

A pro­fi­ciency with the medium is ev­i­dent in Jo­jie’s five looks: Com­bined with silk and cot­ton, the weave was ma­nip­u­lated to skim a woman’s body. “I just wanted to show that the abel is just like any other fab­ric one can use for con­tem­po­rary clothes. I see for­eign women, aside from lo­cals, wear­ing them.”

Ivar’s vi­sion, too, was re­lata­bil­ity and he car­ried this out by mix­ing abel with light wool and rayon, us­ing the weave as an ac­cent in sleek shifts and sep­a­rates for men and women that would eas­ily be state­ment pieces in an ur­ban­ite’s wardrobe.

“The abel fab­ric has pros and cons. The pos­i­tive side of it is that one can cre­ate one’s own pat­tern in any color com­bi­na­tion imag­in­able as long as the threads are avail­able. The down­side is that the fab­ric is only avail­able in a 25-inch width, which has its lim­i­ta­tions,” Ivar says. Ac­cord­ing to Gov. Ber­nos, the fea­si­bil­ity of mak­ing a loom in wider yardages is now be­ing stud­ied by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment.

Den­nis took the chal­lenge that the width posed as an op­por­tu­nity to com­bine pat­terns for his collection of shifts, with a no­table red num­ber where a con­trast­ing weave ran into flirty ruf­fles in the back. “Col­ors mo­ti­vate my de­sign process and abel of­fers me an end­less pal­ette. It is young and vi­brant and easy to han­dle,” he rea­sons. And even with this lim­i­ta­tion, he steered clear of com­mer­cial fab­rics. A sheath in gra­di­ents of brown al­lows the weave to take cen­ter stage. “I wanted to show the peo­ple of Abra that abel can stand on its own. I wanted to im­press upon the en­ter­pris­ing peo­ple of Abra that it is pos­si­ble for them to make a busi­ness out of it.”

On the other side of the spec­trum are Joey’s tai­lored pieces that veer to­ward an­drog­yny. “What was par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for me was how to breathe new life into a lo­cal, some­times even clas­si­fied as eth­nic, weave. Fab­ric as such comes with a con­no­ta­tion that it’s cos­tume-y,” he ad­mits.

Joey had hand-em­broi­dered lines and phrases from Ilo­cano lit­er­a­ture on the back of a shirt, the hem of a skirt, and run­ning an en­tire sleeve length against the lin­ear pat­terns of the weave. He sums up his ap­proach for re­lata­bil­ity: “It’s for any­one who is open­minded and wants un­usual, fun de­tails in a gar­ment.” The abel it­self is a richly tex­tured weav­ing of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural his­tory in a form more func­tional, but just as pre­cious as words—isn’t it a fit­ting jux­ta­po­si­tion?

But here’s the caveat: Jo­jie re­veals, “Some [weaves] are still made of polyester yarns. Man­ual la­bor is put to waste by us­ing syn­thet­ics.” He sug­gests that “nat­u­ral fibers would give the fab­ric a high-end ap­peal.” These threads and yarns are still be­ing sourced abroad. Gov. Ber­nos’ gov­ern­ment hopes to not keep it this way. “Re­search spon­sored by the Depart­ment of Trade and In­dus­try is be­ing con­ducted for the vi­a­bil­ity of maguey and ba­nana plant fibers to re­place the im­ported threads used by the loom weavers. When the study is com­pleted and the re­sults will be fa­vor­able, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment will be on the look­out for chances to put up plan­ta­tions so that the prov­ince will have a steady sup­ply of ma­te­ri­als. Of course, this would also give added value to the Abra abel be­cause ev­ery­thing will be home­grown,” she says.

As for the Abra abel’s growth as a player in the tex­tile mar­ket, “Obra ng Abra” has done its job, plant­ing its seeds.

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