Abaca Fabric
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What Is Abaca Fabric? Sustainability, Pros, and Cons

Looking for natural fabrics that are not cotton or hemp? Abaca fabric is a traditional textile of the Philippines, made from the abaca plant fiber. The fabric is created mainly by women native to the region. In certain parts of the Philippines, weaving skills and knowledge are taught to younger girls, transferring it from generation to generation. One of the many things they learn to make is the Abaca fabric.

So how sustainable is the fabric made from the abaca plant? We examine the origins of abaca fabrics and their production techniques. 

What is abaca fabric?

Abaca fiber drying in front of abaca plants. Photo Credit: John Washington (GNU Free)

Abaca fabric is an organic fabric popular in the Philippines and East Asian countries. It is from the abaca plant fiber; the abaca plant is a species of the banana plant. It is a sturdy fiber that holds its structure consistently. In addition, abaca fabric is a versatile fabric that is easily shapeable into any form of clothing. It is an eco-friendly fabric that decomposes efficiently. 

You can also use abaca fabric to make packaging materials for agricultural produce. Manufacturers also use it to make bags, sustainable luggage, and decorative items like rugs, carpets, canvas, and curtains. Sometimes, manufacturers combine abaca fabric with other materials to produce new types of abaca fabric. 

Abaca fabric can also be called Manila Hemp, although it is not, in fact, hemp, and of the two fibers is the sheerer.

Naturally, it has a beige or light brown color, but the fabric comes in different colors according to manufacturing requirements.

Its durability makes it an excellent material for ropes, cords, and strings. In the 19th century abaca fabric was popularly used for ship rigging due to the materials' natural hardiness when exposed to salt water. The Abaca fabric production process is usually handwoven with care. Furthermore, it is a lightweight and odor-free environmentally friendly fiber. 

What is abaca fabric made of? 

Abaca fabric is from the abaca plant, a type of banana plant. Although belongs to the banana plant family, it doesn’t have fruits like other banana plants. Abaca plants grow up to 22 feet long, and their fiber makes up the support system of the abaca leaf. Producers make abaca fabric by processing the fiber found in abaca leaves. 

How is abaca fabric made?

The initial step in producing abaca fabric is to source raw materials. The raw material for abaca fabric is the fiber found in the abaca leaves. The abaca plant (musa textilis) must be four years old before farmers harvest its leaves to make abaca fabric.

There is a layer of pulp covering the fibers that weavers scrape off strips of the stalks before separating the fibers. After separating the fibers,  weavers thoroughly comb the fibers to remove whatever pulp is left. Leaving the pulp on the fibers turns the strands into a darker color. Later on, weavers separate the threads according to their thickness. They separate fine fibers from the coarse ones before it's left to dry indoors. 

Similar to the traditional process used to make bamboo fabric, there aren't any mechanical processes involved in the production of abaca fabric. After air-drying the fibers, weavers rub them in a similar fashion used to hand wash clothes. Hand rubbing the fibers makes it softer and easier to manipulate. When it is adequately dried, the ends are tied together with almost invisible knots. 

Weaving abaca into fabric

Photo: Colorful abaca slippers, Credit: Alma Gamil via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

T'boli longhouse (or big house) is solely for abaca fabric purposes. The T'boli longhouse contains a backstrap loom used to weave natural fibers together. The longhouse usually maintains a humid and cool temperature because abaca fibers can not withstand high temperatures - weaving these fibers in a hot environment will cause breakages. 

To ensure the woven fibers are tight, the weaver uses coconut wood to smoothen them. The time spent weaving these fibers varies according to the fiber’s texture and design. It ranges from 14 days to a month before completion. 

After the women complete the weaving stage, they rinse the fabric in running water, usually a river. Washing freshly woven abaca fabric in the river allows it to stretch without wrinkles and knots. The textile is left to dry before weavers thoroughly beat the damp material with a round, wooden stick. Hitting the abaca material softens and flattens the knots as much as possible. 

A quality abaca material has a soft texture. Weavers polish the fabric’s surface with a cowrie shell in the final stage. The textile is still damp while it's being polished. The polishing process requires a lot of pressure. So, they attach the cowrie shell to a long bamboo stick and secure the bamboo stick to the ceiling of the longhouse. Polishing the fabric with the cowrie shell gives the abaca material its gleaming touch. 

How is abaca fabric dyed? 

The indigenous people of the Philippines use natural dye for abaca. They have two traditional colors, red and black. They source the dyes for these colors naturally from plants. For example, the black coloring is from the leaves of the k'nalum tree,  while the red pigment is from the roots and barks of the loko tree. 

The Barks and roots of the loko tree are gathered and boiled for almost an hour. Then the fiber is added and simmered for up to a week. When adequately cooked, weavers rinse the threads until the water is colorless. Then, the fibers are spread to dry in the air, away from heat. 

Black dye extraction from k'nalum leaves is more rigorous than red dye. In this case, leaves are plucked and pounded before they boil for up to four hours. By this time, the colors of the leaves have seeped out. Then, they cook the fibers in the water for up to 3 weeks or longer. During this time, they change the leaves every two days. Once it's ready, weavers rinse it in the stream or river before it is air-dried for two days. 

It is possible to dye the fiber in other colors apart from red and black, but indigenous people of the Philippines prefer to use natural dye extract found in their environment. 

Is the abaca fabric sustainable?

We can say that abaca fabric is sustainable as long as it continues to be produced under similar conditions as it is now. Here, we will consider how eco-friendly it is regarding raw materials, production, biodegradability, etc. 

Raw material

Abaca fabric is from an abaca plant. This plant contains natural fibers used as raw materials to create what we know as abaca fabric rolls. It is an organic plant, which means it is free from harmful toxic elements such as chemicals and pesticides.

Further, growing abaca plants when mixed with other crops, such as coconut palms, can assist in biodiversity rehabilitation. Additionally, this hardy palm has other environmental benefits before harvests, such as reducing soil erosion, especially in areas prone to floods and landslides. It can also help prevent sedimentation problems in rainforest areas and the erosion of coastal areas.

Using abaca is also sustainable because it majorly uses natural dye, which doesn't damage the environment, unlike artificial dyes. However, manufacturers combine abaca fiber with other types of fibers, like synthetic and natural fibers. In such cases, it is not entirely eco-friendly as the synthetic material used to combine abaca causes environmental pollution. 

Production 

The production of abaca textiles doesn’t cause harm to human health and our environment. Even though fibers are from abaca plants, it doesn’t lead to deforestation. Instead, it improves the quality of the circle of nature. 

Previously, before Ecuador and Costa Rica became a competitor to the Philippines, the production process was 100% handcrafted. Producers did not use any form of chemical properties or mechanical tools during the manufacturing process - from harvesting the abaca plant to weaving the fibers into rolls of fabrics. The production process was 100% organic before the introduction of mechanical production. 

The mechanical production of abaca fabrics does raise concerns about its energy use. However, the majority of the abaca production process requires human hands.

Biodegradability & Recyclability 

Abaca fabrics are biodegradable and therefore make it to the list of sustainable textile resources. Abaca is distinct from synthetic fibers like nylon and lycra, which remain intact for years before breaking into millions of microplastics that pollute the environment

Abaca plant products are also recyclable. You can reuse and repurpose them for as long as you like. They are the environment’s best friends. Further, many producers use the waste from producing abaca yarn and fibers to make organic fertilizer.

Pros and cons of Abaca Fiber

Benefits of Abaca material

  • Durability: abaca is one of the best natural fiber options with high tensile strength. This property makes it a long-lasting fabric that is reusable over time. 
  • It doesn’t lose its strength in water. 
  • Resistant to salt water: abaca material doesn’t get damaged by salt water, which makes it an excellent material for objects commonly used in seawater. Abaca is a renowned material for fishing lines, twines, and nets. It is even used blended with other materials to manufacture banknotes due to its durability.
  • It is eco-friendly. 
  • It is versatile. Mercedes Benz has even blended abaca with plastic for automobile body parts, and aside from fabric, we can find abaca fiber used to make everything from tea bags and sacking to sausage casing paper and cigarette filter papers.
  • Comfortable on the skin: abaca is famous for its softness and smoothness. It guarantees that our skin will remain flawless while we wear abaca cloth. 

Cons of Abaca material

  • Prone to damage from insects: due to their organic properties, abaca garments are prone to damage by insects, molds, and fungi. It is vital to keep abaca materials away from molds, as they can readily get stained and ruined.
  • It has low chemical resistance.
  • It is difficult to find it in other parts of the world. 

Conclusion 

Other materials like hemp, cotton, and sisal cannot compare to abaca fabric, also called manilla hemp. Manufacturers use natural fibers to create jeans, ropes, tablecloths, and other accessories. 

However, abaca is also a material for making packaging products. Although harvesting the plant’s leaves and turning harvested leaves into a fabric is labor intensive, it is one of the most environmentally friendly materials in the textile industry today. 

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Joyce Romero on Unsplash
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