Pinili, Ilocos Norte
The Ilocos Norte that Magdalena Gamayo knows is only a couple of hours drive away from the capital of Laoag, but is far removed from the quickening pulse of the emergent city. Instead, it remains a quiet rural enclave dedicated to rice, cotton and tobacco crops. 2012 Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan awardee, Magdalena Gamayo still owes a lot to the land and the annual harvest. Despite her status as master weaver, weaving alone is not enough.
Also, even though the roads are much improved, sourcing quality cotton threads for her abel is still a challenge. Even though the North is known for its cotton, it does not have thread factories to spin bales of cotton into spools of thread. Instead, Magdalena has to rely on local merchants with their limited supplies.Â She used to spin her own cotton and brushed it with beeswax to make it stronger, but after the Second World War, she now relies on market-bought thread. She still remembers trading rice for thread, although those bartering days are over. Thread is more expensive nowadays, and of poorer quality. Often, she has had to reject samples but often she has little choice in the matter. There are less local suppliers of thread nowadays, a sign that there is less demand for their wares, but nonetheless, the abel-weaving tradition in Ilocos remains strong, and there are no better artists who exemplify the best of Filipino abel weaving tradition than Magdalena Gamayo.
She says good thread has to be resilient, able to withstand several passes through the loom. It should have a good weight and color, its fibers should not be loose, and it should endure years of use. Magdalena prefers to work with linen, because it is obedient to the master weaverâ€™s touch. In her personal collection are abel that have been in use for generations, gradually getting softer from handling, but retaining their structural integrity and intricate designs. Evident is the handiwork that went into painstakingly arranging bolts of different-colored threads on the four-pedal loom and the math that went with it to ensure that the patterns are sharp and crisp and evenly spaced.
There is more to weaving than knowing how to choose quality thread and how to intuit thread placements on the loom. One must also know the proper tension to the threads so that the warp, or the lengthwise threads that make up the frame of the cloth, can sustain the punishing over-and-under insertion of the crosswise threads, known as the weft. To tie the warp threads too tightly to the anchoring pins would cause them to break easily and result in unsightly bumps in the fabric where the threads were knotted together; to tie the warp threads too loosely would result in the pattern coming apart. There is also a matter of keeping a steady rhythm so that the shuttle bearing the weft threads passes through the warp evenly to ensure a smooth finish. This complicated process is no big deal for computerized machines but imagine recreating the same process everyday manually, relying only on instinct, practice, and innate skill.Â
Magdalena has been relying on her instincts, practiced hands, and innate skills for years, starting at the age 16, when she learned the art of weaving from her aunt. She was never formally taught, but picked up the art on her own by copying the patterns. At that time, every girl in her village knew how to weave, and there would be an informal competition among her cousins and friends as to who could weave the finest, who could be more consistent. Her father bought her her first loom at the age of 19; he obtained the sag’gat or hard wood himself and gave the task to a local craftsman. Her first loom lasted her at least 30 years, sustaining her through years of marriage and motherhood. When it was beyond repair, she considers herself lucky to have been able to buy a secondhand one.Â Today, there are few locals who have the skills to put together a loom similar to the ones Magdalena uses: a sturdy wooden frame with three foot pedals with wide horizontal beams to support the warp and an even longer lengthwise frame to keep the threads in place. It is different from the backstrap loom traditionally used in the Cordillera, where the warp is anchored to a stationary object on one end and to the weaver’s body on the other end.
Today, Magdalena has two students: her cousin’s daughter-in-law, who moved to Magdalena’s community after marrying into Magdalena’s family; and her sister-in-law, who learned how to weave relatively late, at the age of 38. She has had other students before. She starts them on the triple-toned warp binakol, and only when she is satisfied with the quality of their work does she teach them other designs.
Even though Magdalena is already 88 years old, her eyesight still holds true and she still takes care of arranging the threads on the loom. Weavers agree that in weaving, it is the hardest task of all. The slightest miscalculation can result in a misaligned design that doesn’t reveal itself until it’s too late.
Magdalena has taught herself the traditional patterns of binakol, inuritan(geometric design), kusikos (spiral forms similar to oranges), and sinan-sabong(flowers), which is the most challenging pattern. She has also taught herself to recreate designs, which is a useful skill particularly when she is only able to see the design but does not have a sample of how it is done.
Threading the shuttle through the warp, over and under the strands to tease out the pattern, while expertly manipulating the foot pedals to ensure that the right column of fibers is raised or lowered at the exact instant to make way for the onrushing shuttle, is also a challenge for the dexterous. It is punishing work, hard on the back and leg muscles, demanding on the eyes, resulting in rough calluses on the hands. Still, when a master weaver is done with her work, what results is a thing of beauty.
Magdalena’s handiworks are finer than most abel –her blankets have a very high thread count and her designs are the most intricate and can sometimes take up to five colors. Making sure the right colored threads are spaced evenly and keeping accurate count is a challenge that Magdalena has always unerringly met. The beauty of her designs lies in how delicate the patterns are, and yet how uniform the weave. Magdalena’s calloused hands breathe life to her work and her unique products are testament to how machines can never hope to equal the human art. (Maricris Jan Tobias)