San Quintin, Abra
Each time Teofilo Garcia leaves his farm in San Quintin, Abra, he makes it a point to wear a tabungaw. People in the nearby towns of the province, in neighboring Sta. Maria and Vigan in Ilocos Sur, and as far as Laoag in Ilocos Norte sit up and take notice of his unique, functional and elegant headpiece that shields him from the rain and the sun. A closer look would reveal that it is made of the native gourd, hollowed out, polished, and varnished to a bright orange sheen to improve its weather resistance. The inside is lined with finely woven rattan matting, and the brim sports a subtle bamboo weave for accent.
Because he takes pride in wearing his creations, Teofilo has gotten many orders as a result. Through his own efforts, through word of mouth, and through his own participation in an annual harvest festival in his local Abra, a lot of people have discovered about the wonders of the tabungaw as a practical alternative. Hundreds have sought him out at his home to order their own native all-weather headgear. His clients have worn his work, sent them as gifts to their relatives abroad, and showed them off as a masterpiece of Filipino craftsmanship. With the proper care, a well-made tabungaw can last up to three to four generations, and the ones created by Teofilo are among the best there are. They are so sturdy that generally, farmers need to own only one at a time. Even Teofilo and his son only own one tabungaw each.
Although he has been a master artisan since he learned how to make gourd casques and weave baskets from his grandfather at the age of 15, Teofilo is still principally a farmer. Most of the year is spent working the land to coax a good harvest to enable him to send his five children to school. But during the months that his land is not planted to rice and tobacco, or caring for his herd of cows, he devotes his land to planting upo (family Cucurbitaceae), which he then transforms into the traditional tabungaw. Crafting the tabungaw from planting and harvesting the upo, refining the uway (rattan) that make up the lining of the tabungaw, weaving the puser (bamboo) that serves as the accent for the work, and finishing the work takes up a lot of time. It takes at least seven days to finish one tabungaw, assuming that all the materials are available. He uses only simple hand tools that he designed himself and he is involved in each stage of the production.
His craft demands a lot of personal input from him because there is hardly any way for him to source the materials he needs for his work unless he makes them himself. He has had to turn down large orders because he has no one to help him, and in any case, there is no one who matches his level of skill. Sometimes, he wants to give up because it’s hard work, but he doesn’t do it, for fear that the art will end with him.
His output is also limited by his harvest of gourds. In a good year and blessed with good weather, he can make up to 100 pieces. This year, inspired by increasing orders, he plans to increase the area of his farm dedicated to gourd planting. His increased visibility is also partly the result of the local agricultural fairs organized by the local government where he takes out a booth every year to showcase his work.
Since he learned the craft, he has not stopped innovating. Each handcrafted tabungaw is the product of years of study and careful attention to the elements that make up the entire piece. Previously, he used nito (vine trimmings) to decorate the outside of the headgear and sourced it from Cagayan, but when his relative who supplied him with the raw materials passed away, he decided to experiment with more locally accessible materials. His training in weaving baskets served him in good stead, and he was able to apply that skill when he turned to bamboo as an alternative to nito.
He has developed a feel for each component, and engages in a lot of experimentation to determine why this particular variety of upo is more resistant to decay, why this particular species of rattan is unsuitable because it is less pliant to his touch. He has been looking for other varieties of upo to use as raw materials, but it has proven difficult since he does not have access to a plant database that would make his work easier. He had been interested in certain varieties that showed promise but he has been unable to track them down and now they are no longer available in his area.
It would be to his advantage if he could outsource the preparation of the raw materials so that he can focus on the more technical aspects of production. But it’s not that easy to develop in others the same feel for materials with which he has been gifted.
He rues the fact that there is very little interest by other people to make tabungaws even though it has potential as an export product. Now that his children are grown up, he has time to teach others the craft and is looking forward to the possibility. He is also eager to explore new designs, and he has been innovating on his traditional designs based on inspirations from his trips to the nearby provinces. He has developed many patterns and built on the traditional patterns that he learned when he was young. He is interested in developing new ways to show contrast between the shades of matting, and how to keep the tabungaw colorfast regardless of the weather. Years after he first learned how to make a tabungaw, it still takes him a long time to perfect the casque because he is still perfecting his art. (Maricris Jan Tobias)