Traditional Ilocano Handicrafts | Weaving & Pottery
Traditional Ilocano handicrafts, like the “inabel” fabrics & “burnay” jars are folk arts that continue to tell its tales for many hundred years now. They are not only relevant to the northern region but also to the development of art & culture in the Philippines.
But the truth is, these age-old crafts are losing its popularity to modern technology, replacing the beautiful rawness of art with machine-precise pieces. And sadly, its delicate fate lies in the hands of its tradition bearers, patrons & cultural vanguards.
Keeping Traditional Ilocano Handicrafts Alive
We are all part of continuing a tradition like that strand in a loom or that earth on the wheel. We cannot be that thread that tangles in the spindle or we end the weaving. We cannot be that wildfire in the kiln or we shatter the pots into dust. We must move with the rhythm of the loom & the spinning of the wheel to carry on its story, customs & art.
I had a rare chance to meet some of the treasures of Ilocandia—Lola Milagros Panela, a centennial “inabel” weaver at Rowilda’s & Fidel Go, a National Living Treasure awardee for “burnay” pottery. This opportunity opened my eyes into the realities of a precious tradition struggling to survive.
“Abel” or “inabel” is a fabric customarily made of cotton fiber turned into spools of beeswax-brushed yarn & woven in a handloom. From it comes out beautiful blankets, pillowcases, tablemats, sweaters & shawls. Traditional designs include the geometric “binakol” or “inuritan”, the spiral “kusikos” & the flower called “sinan-sabong”.
Weaving the inabel requires mathematical precision. Each strand of thread is meticulously counted & arranged according to color before it is tensioned into the loom. And in a rhythmic pattern, the steps of the wooden pedals & the knots of each crisscrossing weft have to move seamlessly or everything goes in a messy tangle.
All these spectacles of skill can only be achieved by master “agab abel” or abel weavers through long years of training & passion.
The women of Ilocos, particularly in the towns of Paoay, Vigan & Pinili have been weaving since pre-Hispanic time. And as early as 17th century, inabel & some other traditional Ilocano handicrafts already made its way to the West through the Galleon Trade.
But sadly today, the weavers of Ilocos like Lola Milagros & Magdalena Gamayo, a National Living Treasure, cry on their handiworks that are losing to machine-made inabel, inferior thread quality & the younger generation unwilling to learn.
“I will tell you a story. But when you leave, you have to buy at least a piece.” Breaks Fidel Go, one of the most celebrated potters in my latest visit in his workshop in Vigan.
To many, it may sound as aggressive selling but he has told his story many times over—to media interviews, to tourists, to anyone after his craft. But most of them do not really buy. While artists would love to elope from the loutish orb of everyday commerce into their ideal world of solitude, the realities of getting through day-by-day force them to sit & talk to potential buying guests.
But it was a joke—a joke at least half-meant.
Pottery is an ancient art form & in Ilocos this tradition of molding unglazed earthen jars is called “burnay”. It was originally used to age vinegar, wine & “bagoong” or fish paste.
In Vigan, the clay is kneaded by a carabao before it goes to the potter’s wheel that is today still spun by foot. It is then shaped into jars, dried & fired in a kiln. These fragile pieces of art combine the elements of earth, water, wind & fire that only expert “agdamdamili” or potter can only achieve.
Pottery had existed long before Spain came to Ilocos. But it was only in the late 1920s when Chinese migrants like the forefathers of Fidel Go commercially produced it. Today, there are only a few “pagburnayan” or pottery barns left because there’s lesser demand for traditionally made jars.
Despite his accolades being a National Living Treasure, Fidel Go thrives meagerly on selling souvenir pieces to tourists, supplying salt beds & ornamental jars to landscapers. Although he keeps potter apprentices in his wings, still, many do not want to get their hands dirty.
Our agab abel & agdamdamili are not just artisans—they are bearers of the living traditional Ilocano handicrafts. They are the keepers of a culture that is constantly threatened by the loss of interest among the youth & the lesser need for folk but excellent quality pieces.
By patronizing their art & making it popular again, we can help even as tourists in continuing the stories of these time-honored handiworks. The support that we give to them will go a long way in bringing a new breed of weavers & potters. Because it is in the loss of demand that weakens the industry, dampens the hearts of our artists & eventually kills this precious traditional Ilocano handicrafts.
Let us continue to whirl the bales of cotton into spools of thread. Let us carry on to spin the wheels of earth into fragile art.
Inabel Best Buys
1. Souvenir shops along Calle Crisologo
2. Rowilda’s & Cristy’s at Brgy. Camanggaan
3. Brgy. Mindoro, for designs like “balbadosa” (3-colored weave) & alipugpog (cyclone weave)
4. Ining’s Store & Lopez Sisters at the Public Market
1. Aleli Joy Store at Brgy. Nagbacalan, Laoag (near St. Augustine Church)
2. Museo Ilocos Norte
1. Workshop of Magdalena Gamayo
Burnay Best Buys
1. Ruby Pottery in Brgy. Pagburnayan
2. RG Pottery & NP Jar Factory in Brgy. Pagburnayan
SAN NICOLAS, ILOCOS NORTE
1. Rangcapan Pottery at Brgy. Barabar
2. Dina Agonoy Pottery, Gloria Bumanglag Pottery, Filomena Salcedo Pottery