The origin of the abaca plant (a variety of the banana tree) is in the southern part of the Philippines (mainly found in the Visayas) where there are rain forests and highly humid atmospheric conditions. While the banana is valued for its fruit, the abaca is valued for its stalk. Fibers are removed from the abaca’s stalk to make ropes, clothing, and paper-based materials. The abaca is believed to have evolved in the Bicol area and since have been propagated from Southern Luzon to the Visayas region where the fibers became more pliable and stronger due to its climatic conditions. The fibers became finer and whiter in color which is suitable for clothing and other related products. Currently, Bicol, the Leyte-Samar area and Aklan are the top producers of abaca fibers. These plants thrive well in shaded and cool habitats and resemble the banana plant in many respects. The abaca plant also bears fruits and flowers that resemble closely the banana’s. One distinguishing characteristic between the banana and the abaca plant is the shape of the leaftip: the abaca’s is more pointed whereas its cousin’s is rounded. Likewise, the abaca fruits are small and are not as enticing as that of the banana.
Abaca Cloth Manufacturing
Abaca comes from a type of banana plant family, musa textiles, that is noted for its fibers used for weaving. There are uses of handicrafts. It is used in the manufacture of monetary paper currency too. Another name for abaca is hemp. The manufacturing process is hand process from fiber extraction to weaving.
Abaca fibers comes from the stalk of an abaca plant which takes about two years to mature from planting to processing. The trunk is cut from slightly above the root area to near the leaf area. This is about 1 1/2 to 2 meters long. The trunk is peeled. Brown-green skin are thrown away; retaining the cleaner or white portion which will be processed into fibers. The fibers are extracted through hand extraction machine composed of either serrated or unserrated knives. The peel is clamped between the wood plank and knife, and hand-pulled through, removing the resinous materials. The extracted fibers are sun-dried which help whiten the fiber. Once dried, the fibers are ready for knotting. A bunch of fiber are mounted or clamped on a bamboo stick to facilitate segregation. Each fiber is separated according to fiber sizes and grouped accordingly, e.g. big fibers are grouped together; similarly for medium size, fine size, and very fine size. To knot the fiber, each fiber is separated and knotted to another end of another fiber. The separation and knotting is repeated until the bunch of unknotted fibers are finished to form a long continuous strand. Knotted fibers are dropped into a round container to form a bunch or round pile. The knot has to be right and tight so that fibers will not slip away. Likewise, excess material from the knot are cut because such will affect the weaving process. These fibers are ready for weaving.
Prior to weaving, abaca fibers are warped on the warping machine. When the warping process is finished, such is mounted on the loom. The warp is then inserted in the string harness and then , in the weaving reed. On the other hand, the weft is prepared by winding the abaca fibers on a bamboo bobbin. During the winding process, small pebbles are placed on the bunch of knotted fiber to act as counter weight and as a black background to the fiber. The bobbin is placed on the wooden shuttle. Again, a black cloth is laid down underneath the loom to make the fibers visible to the weavers. Weaving starts at this point. Weaving is also done by hand, thus the process is slow.
The material is hand-washed using mild soap and drip-dried. Do not rub nor hand-twist the wet abaca cloth. Do not machine wash the material. To whiten the abaca cloth, soak the material in rice washing. The abaca cloth can last up even more than a hundred years since we still have abaca cloth of that age.