Saturday, August 06, 2016

Living heritage

THE SON raised an eyebrow: You bought not just another one but two?

He was reacting to my sudden appearance at his side, with an unplanned purchase of two Abel Iloko hand towels.

Made of cotton and undyed, the small towels are made of cotton, woven by hand in the looms of Northern Luzon. I’ve collected about two dozens of them, while accompanying the husband to trips in Vigan.

Abel can be made of many materials, colors and designs. The most beautiful ones are bedcovers, blankets and table runners that deserve to be framed and admired, as works of art.

I cannot afford the prices of these heirloom pieces, which run to thousands of pesos. I wash the Abel by hand and don’t see myself doing the back-breaking washing demanded by a heavy sodden blanket as generations of finicky housewives may have done.

The hand towels, though, are a good compromise between art and utility. My old ones were sold at three pieces for P100 at Vigan’s Calle Crisologo.

When I was commuting to UP Diliman, the Abel would be grimy at the end of the day. After being hand-washed, the Abel would be back to its creamy softness. During the monsoon months, the towel converted into a cozy neck warmer.

Fast forward to a mall in Makati where, on the way to the MRT, our group strayed to check out a Christmas fair organized by the Department of Trade and Industry. The exhibitors were micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) selling holiday decors, gifts, processed food, bags, gems and accessories, and other products.

Wandering among the stalls, I reached the periphery and came upon a young woman tending a stall which displayed Abel Iloko.

In jeans and shirt, the young woman was a quiet counterpoint to the gemlike colors and tapestry of designs of the Abel. The other MSMEs were minded by salespersons.

However, it adds value when the vendor has a connection to the product, specially the intangible aspects that distinguish a traditional handicraft from a factory-produced commodity.

A smile swept her face when I mentioned Abel. Their firm has its own looms. It takes an experienced weaver a month to produce the panels that go into a queen-sized bed cover.

When I touched a cream-colored sheet, she said that cotton was used for the design but polyester comprised the panel. She was also honest to admit that she did not know the names of the designs displayed in the bolts of weaving. Honest and informed: a surfeit of virtues in a person so young.

The hand towels were sold at P50 apiece. Cream-colored, the cotton rectangles had, at each end, three parallel lines in color to relieve the simplicity. If one looked closely, the Abel was not plain at all. There was a web of hexagons connected by a chain of links. Like the Vigan towels, every Abel weaver has a particular design.

It is hard to imagine that a lot of effort and artistry goes into an article used to wipe away sweat. Even harder to ponder is that Abel, priced this low (one is spared the whole-day drive to Vigan, one way), will have to compete with a thick, heavy imported hand towel made of “100% cotton made in India,” sold in supermarkets and priced thrice as much.

This is my longwinded reply to my son’s query. If we want heritage to surround us and not gather dust in museums, we must buy Filipino.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 24, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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