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Panama Hats are a Dying Tradition

Harry Rosenholtz
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

(continued from page 2)

Since that first visit, Black has made numerous trips to Montecristi. He has become deeply involved with the weavers and the community. He often purchases large quantities of food to be distributed to the weavers and their families during times when weaving jobs are scarce and family incomes are down. He has taken some of the older weavers into Manta for prescription glasses. He sends Christmas presents every year. And, of course, everyone he photographs receives a copy of the picture. If you visited Montecristi, you would see Black's photos in almost every house.

According to some of Black's pamphlets on the subject of Panama hats, they are woven from various types of straw from all over the world: the Caribbean, Polynesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, Africa and on and on. Why have the straw hats woven in Ecuador risen to such an exalted position at the top of the hierarchy? One of the most important reasons is the straw itself.

The source of the straw is a kind of palm, known in scientific jargon as Carludovica palmata. In Ecuador the plant is called toquilla, the straw is called paja toquilla and the hats are called sombreros de paja toquilla. Although it has been found naturally as far north as Panama and as far south as Bolivia and has been successfully introduced into Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, nowhere are conditions better for the plant's growth than in the coastal lowlands of Ecuador.

The plants grow wild in abundance but could almost be said to be cultivated by those who "harvest" their straw. The unopened leaf chutes are cut from the plants with machetes. The green leaf casing is removed. The vein, spine and coarse edge are stripped away. Then, the opened, pale green palm fronds are put into 50-gallon oil drums filled with water. A fire under the drum boils the water. After an hour or so, the palm chutes are taken out of the water and hung up to dry on a clothesline. As they dry, the long strands shrink and curl lengthwise to form closed cylindrical fibers about a yard long. Each fiber is then slit into yet narrower strands, and the straw is boiled and dried again.

The straw is then ready for the weavers.

The hat weavers split the strands of straw to as fine a width as they are comfortable working with. The best weavers work with straw so fine that one has to look at the hat very closely to make out any weave pattern at all. "They're incredible," remarks Black. "The texture looks more like fine linen than straw." The hats are woven from the center and worked out toward the edge of the brim. When the end of one strand of straw is reached, it is tied in a minute knot onto the next strand. This in turn forms little rings, or vueltas, inside the hats. Some claim that the number of rings inside a Montecristi directly relates to its quality. Black disagrees. He says that the number of rings, while sometimes a general indication of fineness of the straw, is not a reliable way to gauge the overall quality of the hat.

"It would be like counting the rings on a tree to decide how tall it is," Black says. The metaphor is apt. At best, the number of rings may roughly correlate to the fineness of the straw. But if the straw is badly woven, with gaps or extra knots, then it is not a high-quality hat.

Black recommends the following criteria when selecting a Montecristi: the fineness and tightness of the weave; the evenness of the weave; the uniformity of color throughout; and the compact regularity of the "back weave", the narrow band at the edge of the brim. "if you're looking for a fine hat," cautions Black, "never buy one with a brim that has been cut, folded under and sewn." His anger boils over as he talks about what he almost considers a blasphemous affront to a handwoven hat. It is a shortcut often taken in finishing cheaper hats so that the brims all have the same width.

"The very finest hats will have--I don't know quite how to describe it..." Black searches for the words. "They almost seem to glow. There is a kind of visual purity about them." He laughs at his own passion about these hats. "To me, it's almost as if they have an aura or halo around them."

Weaving is not the only endangered art connected with hats. The practice of fine hand blocking, or shaping, of the hats is also disappearing. "When I returned from Hawaii after that first trip, with a hundred or so Montecristi Finos, I had to find someone to block them. They were just hat bodies. Flat on top. Straight-walled, round crown. No leather sweatbands. No ribbons. Nothing. Without being blocked and finished, they were unmarketable.

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