Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Abaca - the natural fiber wonder

personal, functional artifacts: bamboo bike used abaca on its joints, t'nalak weave is purely made of abaca, various handle wrapping experiment for my mahogany fighting stick, karambit, igorot bolo - all wraps double as emergency cord;  walking bamboo sticks also have abaca wraps ('laminated')

Abaca (also called Manila Hemp) has been in wide use for several centuries before synthetic fibers came into play.  Abaca fibers come from a plant of Banana family and its fiber is known for tensile strength allowing it to be used as rope, carrying material (net, bag), among other things.  In the Philippines, it’s still widely used as utility rope, for handicrafts, for paper-making, for making useful stuff like basket, etc.

Interestingly, Philippines is the world’s biggest producer of Abaca – and a good reason why we should support the industry, and start reconsidering Abaca for our ‘usual needs’.  Globally, Abaca has gaining popularity as strengthening material mixed with other materials; automobile giants in Europe have started using Abaca to reinforce some of their car parts like windshield/bodies, and other companies for their boats, airplane parts, etc..

Everybody’s Utility Cord
I’ve been reading about posts of (disaster) ‘preppers’ and survivalists in various websites and the primary cord of choice is paracord.  A very good choice with multitude of use in survival situation.   Many started ‘integrating’ lengths of paracord in their regular stuff (flashlight, knife, poles, etc.) even make wearable things like para-bracelet, or necklace as ready stock of cord for emergency use (ex; shelter pitching, sling, utility string, fishing, binding, etc.)

In the Philippines though, most suppliers sourced this from China (think Divisoria)– and many doubted its ‘real strength’ given the known ‘cheap production = low quality’ common to many other Chinese brands (this is echoed when I read Bloomberg’s article highlighting issues like rat/fox meat sold as beef, or tainted milk products, etc). Best are those sourced from US with stricter regulatory policy.
The use of climbing-rated  “accessory cord’ is not popular to many, but that would be my preferred type which can be use for limited rescue or climbing needs. A lot stronger than paracord. But it’s very expensive and relatively heavier.  

Now, how about the use of Abaca?  Traditional or more-patriotic Pinoys may reconsider their options.  My bamboo-framed bike extensively used Abaca (mixed with glue) to strengthen and connect the ‘joints’.  Lately, I’ve experimented on it as ‘handle softener” for knives and machete/bolo and walking sticks, double as emergency cord (similar to paracord use). Limited to anyone’s creativity – this can be used in various other ways – we just have to start the process.

pic1 (pole) here, I use 3mm aba-cord as handle cushion - an easy-access 10ft emergency cord. I;ve added 7ft 2mm braided aba-cord as leash.  (2nd pic) survival bracelet offering ~40in of emergency cordage. (3rd pic), 10ft of 3mm aba-cord braided as belt or leash - the idea is to find an abaca-friendly braiding/knotting style, and keep the cord as 1 single piece.  I 'flamed' the excess "hairs" typical of abaca, it will still be a little rough but tolerable. coating with polyurethane (not yet done here) will preserve, and smoothen the cord a bit.

Now I dug into some good vs. bad points of paracord vs. “aba-cord” (abaca) and here are some bits;
Paracord typeIII has 550lbf MBS (min breaking strength), with usual diameter of 3.2mm;  GOOD SIDE:   higher strength, will not rot/mildew, smooth finish, many colors/ fashionable,  BAD SIDE: more expensive (`3php/1ft of 3mm) mostly made in China (i.e. 550 rating mostly doubted by many); synthetic/ not eco-friendly, 
Abaca with 5mm diameter as around 405lbf (MBS),  for 6mm, 540lbf;  GOOD SIDE: salt water resistant, organic/ biodegradable/ eco-friendly,  it is way cheaper (~2php/1ft of 5mm, cheaper with long lengths) , supports local economy ‘native look’ and colour appeal;   BAD SIDE: can rot (biodegrade), will shrink when wet (most were pre-shrunk to lessen this effect, and poly coating makes it less susceptible to shrinking and rotting);  rough to bind (gloves ideal when binding),  harder to knot.  Less tensile strength vs. paracord but already good enough for most utility use. Both must not be used for rescue or climbing.

So how can we promote more Abaca use?
1.      If you’re a ready-for-disaster guy/gal stocking supplies of binding cords, consider acquiring abaca or even sisal or hemp (all natural).  Hey, it’s only for emergency use anyway ;)  Seal it in an air-tight bag with silica moisture absorber inside.  Or coat them with polyurethane (varnish). There are different diameters available in the market or hardware stores.  Just like paracord, it can also be fashioned into different ‘side uses’ but mostly as handle-grip binding material.
2.      If you’re into arts and crafts – abaca-made paper (or even cord) may add ‘native appeal’ in your artwork
3.      If you’re into building something (fiber glass boats or kayaks, bike, airplane, skateboard, surf board, home resin walls, etc.) – consider the growing trend in mixing abaca fiber with resins, etc. as natural material reinforcer.  It’s Eco-friendly! And Cheap! And very Pinoy!
4.      If you’re into fashion, or just wanting some home/bag fabrics - consider T’boli weaves called T’nalak (or other abaca fabrics like Sinamay).  Beautifully hand-woven textiles made of locally grown and vegi-dyed abaca fibers.  I’ve in fact started experimenting some pieces for my bag needs.  Not only that we support abaca industry, we’d consequently preserve our weaving art and culture as well.

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