Photo by Mikeel Araña

Hablon: For Love of the Weave

By jam lebrilla

Hablon is a heritage industry in Iloilo. By this, I mean that the making of hablon is not just a means of livelihood, it is also a culture, a tradition, an irreplaceable fragment in the whole that is Iloilo. It is like our churches, our food, and our language. It is ours to use and, over the years, ours to mess up as well.

With that said, get ready for a long, snarky, commentary on hablon in the present. What gives me the right to write about it? Well, it’s simple: I’m also involved in the production of these native products. The more information there is about hablon, the better!

Now, for a brief background: Hablon is a type of woven cloth most often seen during formal events, fashion shows, and in homes. It is taken from the Hiligaynon word “habol“, meaning “to weave”. In the past, the thread was made from various materials such as cotton,  jusi (banana fiber), piña (pineapple fiber) and the like. Nowadays, it’s just mostly made from cotton and rayon thread because, unfortunately, prices of raw materials have skyrocketed over the years.

hablon iloilo
Photo by Mikeel Araña

Miagao is most known for producing hablon these days, though it’s important to remember that hablon is made almost everywhere in this region. Specifically, the town’s Indag-an Multipurpose Cooperative is the one place synonymous with the word “hablon” nowadays. The marketing is so good on Miagao’s part that their products are practically all that matters today.

As metaphors go, hablon can be compared to many things. However, I like to think of it as a headless chicken that’s running around and not knowing it’s already dead. Hablon continues to survive because of government grants, sponsorships, fashion shows, and tourists. But really, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, it has no soul.

At some point in the future, hablon will no longer be art at all; it’ll become just like every other commercialized non-entity, only existing in order to rake in the pesos. It’ll just be a pretty, but essentially, irrelevant version of itself. And any real hints of greatness in hablon—because yes, a piece of cloth can be “great”—will be gone. It’ll just be a memory someone like me can wax nostalgic about twenty or thirty years down the road.

How do I know that? Because I’m hearing those exact conversations now. I hear tales of the “good old days” when the weave used to be stronger, when the quality was better, when blue was bluer, pink was pinker, and the cloth shimmered in the sun like a Twilight vampire. Aah, the good old days… where have they gone?

“No Brain in the Process”

Hablon: For The Love Of The Weave - Project IloiloLet’s go back to the hablon/headless chicken comparison. Why did I say that this is the current condition of hablon? It just boils down to this one cultural aspect: there is no innovation. It’s as if there’s no brain in the process. There is no plan to improve the weave or the design. Here are just the usual criticisms I hear from anyone who tried using hablon before: “Oh, it’s too weak.” “Oh, if I wear it, the dress will be too hot.” “Oh, the design’s so…vintage. And not the good kind of vintage.” Everyone knows what’s wrong with it. No one seems willing to fix it… or almost no one anyway (I’ll get back to that in a bit).

Now, for another metaphor: Hablon is like the first wife that got thrown away for a prettier and richer mistress. Before the era of Spanish colonization and the Industrial Revolution, hablon was produced everywhere. When the Spanish arrived, hablon survived because the material was being exported to Spain. It wasn’t until Iloilo City was opened for international trade in 1856, that the hammer fell. It was like a death knell for the industry. With the greater efficiency of machines in producing textiles, cheap clothing came into the port, thereby decreasing the need for weaving.

When Nicholas Loney arrived and was appointed as the first British Vice Consul in Iloilo, sugar was pushed as the main export. By assisting farms and plantation owners through loans and the purchase of machinery, production became more efficient. A larger workforce was needed, which meant people couldn’t sit by their looms all day manufacturing a product that was slowly growing defunct. So, hablon got pushed aside by sugar and the convenience of machine-made cloth.

Hablon mainly shows up on special events or as a pretty thing people have in their homes so they can tell a pretty story today. It’s exoticized, but it’s not the kind of exotization that will be helpful for it in the long run. Hablon is now backroom luxury: an object of lavishness that is hidden away, and only to be used for special occasions. It has become less of a symbol of identity and more of a product to be peddled to fascinated out-of-towners.

Gugma For Everyone

hablon iloiloFortunately, I have been lucky enough to get involved with people trying to jumpstart the local hablon industry in their own little ways. One of those is Gugma Weaves. Isn’t the name just epic? Apparently, the name references both the City of Love and Kikomachine at the same time (Yay for the last part.). Gugma Weaves is composed of a group of friends who are trying to create personal and professional accessories made out of hablon, all woven with “gugma”, of course.

On a rainy afternoon, I was able to catch up with Adelle Pacificar, a hablon enthusiast, fabric-geek, one of my good friends, and a co-founder of Gugma Weaves (though, technically, one of the first, in fact, to start the group). Over some cups of coffee, laughter, and frequent forays into random conversation, I was able to get a glimpse of what Gugma Weaves is and how it started.

“I have always had a deep fascination for the material.” says Adelle. “It started when I was in kindergarten. An aunt was a nun working in Mindanao and would bring me bags made of batik fabric. When I was in college, I wrote an article about hablon for the school publication and went to Miagao. That’s when I really fell in love. But the start of Gugma Weaves came last summer. I was sick at home and saw of the open call of Spark Project for projects. It had a deadline, so I called Mike (Mikeel Araña, co-founder of Gugma Weaves) and we talked about how we could make this work. Our first idea was: lanyards!

Everybody wears them, especially students. We had it sewn, took pictures, thought of a good name, and we submitted it to Spark. When the project was approved, I was very happy because it was as if my idea had been given validation. That it wasn’t just a crazy idea. That it was possible.”

This love of hablon seems to be something that all the members share. That, and pride in being Ilonggo and all that is involved in being one. When I asked how all the members were gathered together, Adelle was deep in thought for a second, and then she shrugged.

“It all just kind of came together. Mike and I, have been friends for a very long time, and we’ve been talking about doing something like this for a while now. Bryan, Modj, Pom, came along the way, and then of course, you. Somehow, we have the skills needed to make this work. Daw hagaday man lang laban. [Mostly, we invited them to join.] The challenge, really, is to meet when all of us are either working or studying. Social media has been great for keeping in contact.”

And after you have people for a project like this, the next step is, of course, to look for materials! Like the ingredients to the perfect batchoy, the right weaving, accessories, and presentation are important. At first, I thought the easiest place to get hablon from would be Miagao. It seems I was wrong.

hablon iloilo
Photo by Mikeel Araña

“We get it from Dueñas.” (“Why not Miagao?”, I followed.) “Miagao is a bit overexposed and overused. Everyone goes there. We thought it might be a good idea to highlight places other than Miagao. And in Dueñas, the weave is very good, and the designs are different to the ones you typically find in Miagao.” Adelle said with a laugh. “It’s actually been easier getting hablon than it has been getting everything else.”

Of course, one of the many challenges for Gugma Weaves right now involves more than just sourcing hablon: “Right now, we are designing laptop bags, because it’s practical and everyone uses it,” Adelle continues. “The difficulty has been in getting quality hardware and different varieties of leather here in Iloilo. Everyone suggests going to Manila. The hardware, or the accessories such as hooks, buttons, etc, these things need to be sourced outside because the quality of the hardware here isn’t as good. As much as possible, we’re trying to source materials from here in Iloilo, but some things are difficult to find.”

And the end goal for Gugma Weaves? The dream? The perfect ending in a perfect universe?

“Well, we want to produce a quality product, and also help the community in Dueñas. Right now, their weaving center has been damaged and we want to help with repairs. But ultimately, we want to transform how people see hablon. We want hablon to become part of our way of life.”

hablon iloilo
From left to right. Team Gugma: Diana Porras, Adelle Pacificar, Modjelen Misme, the author, Bryan Liao, and Mikeel Araña. Photo by Mikeel Araña.

The Future of Hablon

So Gugma Weave’s looking at the future. And to you, my fellow Ilonggos, you may probably be aware at this point that there shouldn’t be only one way of using hablon. It has potential and possibilities that can go beyond its current stature as a “polished souvenir”.

For instance, look at places like India, Vietnam, or Indonesia: each one of these countries have their own versions of hablon; their weaving can actually be seen front and center. Their cloth has truly become part of their identity. They use it matter-of-factly—both for everyday use and for special occasions. Their workman-like treatment for their cloth has resulted in a thriving industry that constantly innovates in order to improve the production of their woven textile.

The above is in stark contrast to Iloilo’s, where weavers—most of them female—keep using the same designs in the same products for the same purposes. Aside from being used as scarves, table runners, dresses, handkerchiefs, or barongs, I’ve not seen hablon used for anything else. There is no innovation and, therefore, no change. It is as if the hablon industry ignores the fact that the world is changing.

Ilonggos, too, are changing. Hablon should reflect that change, if it wishes to remain relevant to who we are as a culture, and as a people.