This is because the islands—Anda in Pangasinan and Cagraray in Albay—are blessed with plants whose leaves are lean, fibrous, long and supple enough for weaving.
Anda in western Pangasinan has plenty of “buri” plants, while Cagraray in Bacacay, Albay, is rich in screw pine, known to locals as “karagumoy.” Both plants belong to the palm family.
The craft of mat weaving has been kept alive on these islands mostly by women. The men help by gathering leaves in the forests, but the women do the backbreaking work of preparing the leaves and weaving them.
In Anda, mat weaving using buri leaves survives, but the activity now involves mostly elderly women, says Emma Cas, a municipal employee.
Reviving the industry
Cas is helping revive the industry by running a shop where she displays and sells products from Anda villages. “I want to help the industry because it helped me finish school,” she says.
When she was studying at Luzon Colleges (now University of Luzon) in Dagupan City, Cas supported herself by weaving mats during weekends.
“My parents were poor and I was able to go to college because a foundation paid my tuition and other school fees. But for my other expenses, I supported myself through weaving mats,” she says.
It is this connection with the industry that Cas, while already a local government employee, continues to weave mats and bags. She says she designs mats and bags so these can be copied and produced by other residents.
The buri mats are expensive than the karagumoy mats, selling for P120 to P400, depending on size and design.
Anda supplies buri mats to other towns in the province, but the market is still a big problem, she says. The Pangasinan Visitors’ Bureau, a nongovernment organization that promotes tourism and local industries, helps in marketing local mats.
In Albay, along the Cabasan village road in Cagraray, residents spread colorful mats for drying before these are folded and brought to the market.
The villagers have been involved in the industry for ages, Estrella Batallier, 73, says.
The women in her family—she, her mother and a daughter-in-law—had engaged in mat weaving. But Batallier says she already stopped weaving because she cannot do heavy physical work anymore. Instead, she sells the karagumoy leaves gathered from her land at P20 a bundle.
Cristy Barlizo, 29, who has been been weaving for 15 years now, finishes one or two “banig” (mats) a day after completing household chores. A bundle of karagumoy leaves is enough to make one mat.
Every week, she takes an hourlong boat trip to Tabaco City to sell her mats and those of her neighbors.
Barlizo says almost all women, even girls, on the island know how to weave. “The materials are available, and since there are not much job opportunities on the island, we choose to make mats,” she says.
Her neighbor, Sheryl Barrameda, 31, softens the karagumoy by rolling a coconut over the leaves. But softening the leaves is just a part of the tedious process that starts from gathering the leaves in the forests and trimming fresh ones. These are bundled and brought to shops, actually houses.
The leaves are stretched, sundried, softened and trimmed, says mat maker Shirley Bercasio. Some leaves are dyed in different colors and intertwined to create various designs, she says.
“The industry keeps everyone busy,” says Elisea Barrameda, 42, the wife of the barangay chair of Cabasan.
While the process of producing mats are backbreaking, these are sold for only P50 to P80, and a few pesos more in Tabaco City to include transport expenses.
Modern living, however, has confined the mats to rural areas where residents still use them. Tourists buy the items as decorative pieces and souvenirs, the mat makers say.
Anda’s buri and Cagraray’s karagumoy mats have also been losing out to competition offered by cheap mats and bed sheets from China.
“We hope that the industry won’t be only sustained for tourism. We hope that people continue to use these native mats,” Cas says.