Widely known to produce the global Manila hemp, the abaca is also used for cloth weaving, house-building, net- and rope-making, and basketry.
When Pottery Barn, an international furniture shop, features a winnowing tray as a centerpiece, (yes, that bilâo which costs a whopping 15,000 pesos) it shows how local materials are seen as resourceful organic art in other parts of the world. Imagine how something utilitarian in the lives of the Filipinos can be treated as art, hung on the wall, and displayed to be admired.
But that is precisely what is happening, now that their use has relatively dwindled in our everyday lives. How often do the people who buy their rice in the giant supermarkets actually use the bilâo? When was the last time we’ve actually used one? Do we even have the skills to make these baskets?
In many ways, these organic materials have become a craft that showcases a cultural practice long past (just a friendly reminder that the 1980s was 40 years ago!). These wickers are still around, woven by master craftspeople whose knowledge and skills are being replaced by other common materials, primarily plastics. In this case, what was once an essential skill to survive has changed to become marketable artistic products. And like any craftspeople, basic knowledge of their materials—in this case, their environment and the plants they bear—is fundamental to their knowledge. Like anything that takes time, plants and people are entwined to produce skills and knowledge that is passed down through generations.
The abaca (Musa textilis) needs no introduction to the world, as it is one of the most important and famous non-woody plants. It’s quite famous throughout Southeast Asia and is native to the Philippines where diverse types of the plant can be found. Widely known to produce the global Manila hemp, also used for cloth weaving, house-building, net- and rope-making, and basketry, the abaca is associated with the banana plant in that its “trunk” is a sheath from where the leaves are. It may also produce a fruit that resembles the banana, with several seeds that may be used to propagate. These fruits are inedible to people. Bats, on the other hand, are one of the main propagators of the seeds.
For some reason, it is difficult to translocate a particular species of abaca due to its unique changes based on the land where it grows, which is why there are several varieties of the plant in the Philippines. Abaca thrives better in rainy areas and preferably on volcanic soil, and it can be found throughout the Philippines, mostly in Eastern Mindanao, Leyte, Batanes, and others. However, the top exporter of abaca raw material is in Catanduanes, where it can also be found abundantly.
The fiber that the abaca produces has high tensile strength, making it sturdy and reliable. Before the onset of plastic ropes, the Manila hemp was helpful in the shipping industry as it can pull large ships to docks without breaking. It was found that abaca actually had higher strength than nylons and artificial rayons. It also has anti-rotting properties. The leaves are commonly the most important part, and the longer the leaf the more continuous rope or hemp it can make. These stripped leaves are also highly used for making baskets or cloth.
During the Spanish Period, the Manila hemp was the name given to abaca whether it was imported from other smaller islands or from Latin America. Abaca became synonymous to the Philippines, which continues to be the number one supplier of this plant throughout the entire world. For the Hanunoo Mangyan of Mindoro, they use Musa textilis as cordage for their baskets.
Meanwhile, the people of Itbayat, Batanes have adapted the use of Musa textilis primarily for their basket use alongside other plants. Even now, many basket-makers in Batanes extensively use abaca for a variety of uses. The vakul, a woven basket-like raincoat used by women, extensively uses the abaca since it is essentially waterproof. This is similar to the Itbayat fishermen’s choice to weave the Musa textilis into slippers used so as not to slip and wound themselves on the rocky shores when bringing in their boats. Thorough experimentation to understand the properties of abaca indicates that its paranchyma prevents water from getting inside the plant. This makes it an ideal material to provide waterproofing!
For the basket-makers, the abaca is one of the most widely used plants that beats the capacity of plastics. They last longer and can be modified according to their needs. As Dr. Celine Kerfant mentioned regarding her basket-making informants from Batanes, the forest is generous to the people, so they take care not to take more than is needed lest there will be less to harvest in the future.
Knowing the hundreds of varieties of baskets throughout the Philippines helps us appreciate the skills and scientific knowledge of the people, honed primarily by their observation and practice. Aside from being tradespeople dedicated to their craft, they are true scientists by weaving information on flora and applying them to an end product. This skill is particularly honed by continuous practice and experience perfected with the help of generational knowledge passed down through centuries. Baskets produced by these experts show how they critically entwine the discipline of understanding plant anatomy and characteristics to produce beautiful and soothing art. Basket art not only deserves to be placed on a wall to be admired, but art that is used and relevant to our culture, identity, and daily lives.
Kerfant, Céline. Comparative study of the craft traditions in the Batanes islands (Philippines) and Lanyu (Taiwan, Republic of China) based on plant anatomy-phytolith analysis and ethnobotany. Tarragona, Spain: Departament d’Història i Història de l’Art, Universitat Rovira i Virgili,, 2020.
Miyamoto, Masaru. “The Hanunoo-Mangyan: Society, Religion and Law among a Mountain People of Mindoro Island, Philippines.” Senri Ethnological Studies 22, no. 240 (1988).
Shahri, Waseem, Inayatullah Tahir, and Burhan Had. “Abaca Fiber: A Renewable Bio-resource for Industrial Uses and Other Applications.” In Biomass and Bioenergy: Processing and Properties, edited by K.R. Hakeem, M. Jawaid, and U. Rashid, 47-61. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2014. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-07641-6_3.