This fabric weaves centuries of Ilocano tradition

Lawrence Casiraya

PAOAY, ILOCOS NORTE – Like a true-blue Ilocano would tell you, there is a lot more to an “abel iloko” blanket than keeping you warm – it represents centuries of history about the region where it was made.

Technically speaking, abel in Ilocano refers to the process of weaving while inabel is the final woven product made from cotton and other natural fibers. Thus, inabel can refer to a variety of products including table runners, pillow cases and even dresses, although blankets are a must-have.

You can find inabel blankets from almost any public market and most souvenir stores anywhere you go in Ilocos your best bet for authentic (meaning, more durable) are in Paoay, Pinili and Sarrat in Ilocos Norte, and Tagudin, Santiago and Vigan in Ilocos Sur.

In these places you can observe for yourself how the locals weave these fabrics by hand using wooden pedal frames that, quite frankly, look as old as the people using them.

Blogger Constantine talks about seeing a store just beside Paoay Church that weaves and sells inabel fabric, which evoked childhood memories of “starched” blankets that can stand on their own. Or this other Ilocano blogger who remembers childhood days with her prized “burbur” comforter.

The history of the abel iloko, meanwhile, dates back to ancient tribes when, according to historical accounts, Northern tribes would trade their prized fabrics even for gold.

Among the Tingguians, for example, the number and quality of blankets and fabrics were indications of family wealth and social standing. Like works of art, the family’s best textiles are exhibited during the wake for a deceased family member.

The fabric’s different designs also have significance back then; the dizzying “binakol” weave – a common and popular design- is said to represent the waves of the sea; ancient tribes believed such design protected them from bad spirits. Which explains why it is often used during tribal rituals, or simply picture a guy beating his mini-gong dancing with only a piece of inabel fabric covering his family jewels.

And then the Spaniards came (and conquered for four hundred years) and discovered this prized fabricthey found so sturdy they use it as sailcloth for ships and boats.

But with readily available machine-made fabrics, the abel iloko is now a dying tradition. It has even become some sort of cause célèbre for local fashion designers, using the centuries-old fabric in their creations.

Non-fashionistas can help revive a dying by simply buying an authentic inabel blanket next time you visit Ilocos. You need not be Ilocano to pass it on to your kids when you get older.

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