It seems appropriate to end the posts on my recent trip to Legazpi with some musings on Abaca, that spectacular fiber from the region. I always associated Abaca with Bicol because of all the placemats, handicrafts such as baskets and rugs, rope for ships, etc. that seemed to emanate from there. I just assumed Bicol was the epicenter of abaca. That turns out to be false, it seems, but nevertheless this post. Abaca fiber is considered to be among one of the strongest natural fibers around. Single fibers can be up to 8 or 9 feet long which is what makes it terrific for spinning into manila help or rope or cordage, most often visually associated with ships being tied to the docks. For a while, most of the biggest and strongest ropes globally came from the Philippines. These days, synthetics have displaced a lot of naturally made ropes. The abaca plant, which is indigenous to the Philippines, is related to the banana tree (actually an herb, not a tree). The only distinguishing feature is that its leaves are skinnier and more upright that that of a banana. It bears fruit as well, but it is less edible than bananas.
To make the fiber, you have to strip off the outer sheath of the trunk of the abaca plant and pull out individual fibers that run the height of the trunk. This close up photo of the abaca trunk shows just how fibrous it is. Once stripped and separated, the fibers are dried and they look like the fiber up top. From there it is either spun into rope, added to security papers or currency notes, woven in with instant tea bags, made into handicrafts, etc. Abaca is a major crop in the Philippines and Albay isnâ€™t even one of the top 10 provinces that produces it! Seems Catanduanes, Leyte, Samar and some provinces in Mindanao lead the production volumes that result in over USD80 million in exports per annum according to a Philippine government website.
But this whole learning process on abaca was really made interesting in that I actually witnessed a lady spinning the individual fibers into threads right on our property in Bicol! I had never seen this done before so I was in awe at the labor intensiveness, the speed with which the fiber was made and the strength of the resulting product. I have a new found respect for every single abaca placemat that in fact involves a phenomenal amount of work to get it made! I will never complain about placemat prices again and at PHP15-20 each in Bicol, they were an incredible bargain! Instead of using plastic or other synthetic products, remember to purchase several dozen abaca placements or bags the next time you are in a handicraft store or return home for a holiday so that you can support the tens of thousands of farmers and weavers who make up the all natural and totally local Philippine abaca industryâ€¦