You gotta be-weave it

- September Grace Mahino () - July 9, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - By the time Albay Governor Joey Salceda walked the ramp at the Albay Astrodome, I’d already lost count of the number of gowns and barong Tagalogs that were presented during the evening.

The event was the Pinukpok Fashion Show, organized by the office of the governor to increase the profile of Albay’s newest industry, which is pinukpok fabric weaving.

A back story on the pinukpok industry’s beginnings: the 1992 eruption of Mayon Volcano left many families that were living on the now-recognized six-kilometer danger zone homeless,thus they were relocated to a permanent residence in Sitio Caridad, Banquerohan, Legazpi City. A new home didn’t immediately mean a new livelihood, however, and Sitio Caridad was soon teeming with homeless farmers whose land and animals were buried underneath the lava flow. To address the problem of the residents’ joblessness, the local government with the help of NGOs made a survey of the prevalent skills among the settlers to determine the kind of industry that might thrive in Banquerohan. Weaving was found to be one of the main skills, and tied in with the fact that the Bicol region is the highest producer of abaca in the world (as of 2009, according to Dr. Marissa Estrella, dean of the Bicol University College of Agriculture and Forestry, Bicol produced 14,140 metric tons of abaca fiber), weaving an abaca-based fabric made perfect sense.

Abaca has long been in demand for its variety of uses. Its fiber is indispensable to different industries, from mechanical, electrical and automotive (wire insulators, cable and automotive components) to decorative (handmade paper, stationery, decor, baskets, curtains, carpets, etc.). Recently, handwoven fabrics made out of the same abaca fiber have also garnered a position in the high-end fashion market with sinamay, T’nalak, and dagmay.

Pinukpok is the latest handwoven incarnation of the abaca fiber. Softer and smoother than the other abaca-based fabrics, pinukpok’s production was introduced in Bicol only in the early 2000s, when the Department of Science and Technology presented new technologies to make the fiber easier to weave and process, such as the use of jack-type handlooms and rotary presses as well as soaking the fiber in a solution to make it softer.

The Banquerohan resettlement site was then selected by the Bicol Small Businesses Institute Foundation, Inc. as the pilot area to be trained for pinukpok weaving. This was in line with the local government’s Community Mobilization for Poverty Alleviation program, which aims to add another zone to the region’s already established Permanent Danger Zone (six kilometers around Mayon): a no-poverty zone intended for all those who were displaced by the Mayon eruption. The Department of Labor and Employment awarded P1 million in funding for the production of pinukpok, and from Banquerohan’s more than 500 residents, 176 weavers were trained in the new methods of weaving to produce pinukpok; this was in 2001.

Almost 10 years later, the pinukpok industry has yet to fully take flight outside of Bicol. The fabric has been showcased in the Albay Magayon Fashion Show in 2004 and in the Gayon Bicol Fiesta II held in Intramuros, Manila in 2005, but it is even now referred to as a “sunrise industry,” not quite ready to achieve the popularity of piña fabric in the global textile trade.

The pinukpok fabric is a by-product of abaca, said to be three times stronger than cotton and silk fiber. Producing it isn’t easy, however; the abaca stalks go through several stages before they are transformed into textile. Pag-hânoy is the preliminary step, in which abaca stalks are manually pounded to make the fiber soft and smooth enough for weaving — hence the term pinukpok. The manual pounding also serves to separate the chaff from the wheat; that is, to remove the thicker abaca strands and leave behind only the finer ones.

The next stage is pag-sugpon, a tedious process where the fine abaca strands are joined manually. In pag-sugpon, different types or classes of pinukpok are made: class A would be fabric made of pure abaca, while classes B and C are blends of abaca and cotton in varying proportions. 

Pag-abol is the weaving of the abaca strands using traditional steel handlooms. To make the resulting fabric softer and smoother, the woven fabric is afterwards pressed using a four-roller mechanical rotary press, a machine that is said to cost half a million pesos. Sadly, Banquerohan has only one machine as of now.

The lack of machinery is just one of the problems, however, that has made the pinukpok’s entry into the mainstream textile industry painstakingly slow. For one, the abaca plantations in Albay are still being rehabilitated after the past year’s pest infestation. Second, even with an adequate supply of raw material, the local industry won’t be able to supply a commercial demand for pinukpok, as the process of creating it is tedious and time-consuming. Myrna Pereyra, a faculty member of Bicol University Tabacu Campus and the extension coordinator of the BUTC Service Center Office, an organization that currently serves as the non-profit “middle man” between pinukpok producers and buyers, says their fastest weaver can produce only two meters of the fabric in a day. Work area conditions also have their inadequacies that affect production. Third, despite the push for pinukpok to be Legazpi’s offering in the Department of Trade and Industry’s One Town, One Product entrepreneurial program, it is still has a way to go before it is generally acknowledged as Legazpi’s “specific product or service (of) competitive advantage” (from the DTI website’s description of the OTOP-Philippines program). So far, only high-ranking government officials in Albay have the means to wear outfits made from pinukpok, as the pure abaca fabric can cost around P1,000 per meter. And unlike other region-specific fabrics and textiles, pinukpok is marketed as strictly for clothing purposes only; people in the industry would not think of diluting the fabric’s pedigree by positioning it as an all-around textile, even as material for high-end home design accessories like table runners and draperies.

It’s a reasonable decision, given the lengthy process needed to produce just a few meters of pinukpok, but it also lends an air of inaccessibility to the product. It is but natural to wonder how the Legazpi locals from the lower end of the salary spectrum can identify with a product that they can’t afford and even hardly see in the mass market.

Still, the pinukpuk has not gone unnoticed. Designers Rene Salud and Dita Sandico-Ong are ardent supporters of the product, featuring the fabric in their shows, and former senator Loren Legarda purchases bolts of pinukpok with frequency. The fabric has also made the rounds in Manila through the efforts of the non-stock non-profit organization Market Encounter Goes to Manila and the aforementioned Gayon Bicol Fiesta II. The latest promotional effort is the Pinukpok Fashion Show, held last June 24, where local government officials, led by Albay Governor Joey Salceda, showed support by donning on evening outfits made from pinukpok.

Bicolano designer Danny Clint (no, I don’t think that’s his complete name, either), who was previously based in Dubai for three years, was the sole designer to create gowns for the show. With dozens of elaborate gowns and different-colored barongs featured on the catwalk, it was truly a Herculean effort to dress the models, who were a mix of Ms. Polangui candidates and Albay government officials. When asked if there is a difference between working with more traditional fabrics and with pinukpok, Clint claims there is none. “But for the dyed ones, I had to use the class C fabric, which has cotton strands woven with abaca. The cotton strands were dyed, giving color to the fabric and creating patterns.”

Though the silhouettes were generally on the conservative side — mostly butterfly sleeves, corsets, and fishtail hems — Clint’s gowns showed the possibilities of pinukpok as a high-fashion fabric; imagine what else can be done with a streamlined production and further measures for fabric technology innovation. Promotional measures and finding funding to improve the pinukpok product are worthwhile pursuits, as the inherent qualities of the fabric are noteworthy: the abaca silk is not only soft but resilient, and textile that is made with 100-percent abaca fiber is said to last more than 100 years. It may not be for fast fashion (yet) but it works for enduring, timeless styles. Think of a men’s style shirt made of pristine white pinukpok and featuring local beadwork and embroidery; I’d love to own one for formal gatherings and a less elaborate one as a daily uniform.

There are different tacks that the local government could take to market the fabric: they can opt for its commercialization, training more weavers and adding more rotary presses to meet the demands that will come after heavy promotion of the fabric in the local and international textile industry. Or, they can use its element of exclusivity as leverage and promote it as a scarce but highly covetable commodity, something that is not too far from the pinukpok’s current status. It can approximate the “rare and exotic” status of South Cotabato’s T’nalak fabric (though T’nalak weaving both as an art and an industry faces its own problems), done without excessively working and using the resources, which are the weavers and raw abaca.

So far, the efforts exerted are somewhere in the middle of the two scenarios. Camarines Sur is working heavily on tending after its abaca plantations, a possible solution to the scarcity problem of raw material, though Pereyra says CamSur rarely supplies Banquerohan because of its own abaca-based industries. As of now, the Banquerohan weavers get their abaca from Manito, also in Albay. DTI and DOLE can also prop up pinukpok weaving as a serious and consistent income-generating industry, not just as a start-up livelihood program for short- to mid-term poverty alleviation. By extension, the Department of Tourism can promote it as a craft, an art, and not just another Bicol souvenir, raising its prestige level.

As for fashion hounds, the next time they head south of Luzon, I hope they opt to drop by the weavers’ workstation and buy for themselves some pinukpok fabric. After all, nationalism is now a certifiable fashion trend; why not step out of the box of shirts silkscreened with the Philippine map and support an industry that is 100 percent Filipino, made with 100 percent Filipino raw material — and, in the process, help the livelihood of those who really need it?

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