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Panama Hats are a Dying Tradition

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

(continued from page 1)

"I felt like I had stepped into a legend," Black reflects. "There they were--Montecristi Finos. I had to actually pick one up and look at it closely to be able to see the pattern of the weave. That's how finely woven they are."

Black was introduced to the distributor. Conversation was difficult because Black spoke hardly any Spanish and the distributor didn't speak English. With the help of a phrase book, a dictionary, pointing to objects and a lot of smiles, Black says he was able to communicate that he was interested in the hats and that he would be around for a week or so.

"It was, and is, very important to me," Black's earnestness comes through in the tone of his voice and the way he leans closer as he talks, "to do business the way it's done in Latin America, not the way it's done in the U.S. I didn't want to blow into town, buy some hats and leave. That's the way most gringos do business down there. I wanted to get to know them and for them to know me before any money changed hands."

Black says the weavers were surprised when he pulled a chair over beside them and sat down. The distributor handed Black a stack of hats for his inspection and asked if he wanted to buy some. Black said yes, but not today. "Mañana." The distributor smiled, pulled his own chair over near Black and went back to counting and sorting hats.

Sitting among the weavers for most of the week, Black learned firsthand about the craft, the history and the legend of the Montecristi Fino hat. Occasionally, Black would carefully sort through hats offered to him, putting aside ones he eventually wanted to purchase. And he constantly asked if there were any even finer.

The weavers explained that the really, really fine hats are becoming rarer and rarer. They provided the estimate that there are maybe 20 master weavers left and shook their heads when asked if children were learning the trade.

There's a reason why this trade is dying: The work is hard. The finest hats are woven only at night, when it's cooler, to protect the straw from being damaged by a weaver's sweat, which might build up during the steamy equatorial days and stain the straw. The weaving is done from a bent-over position, with the weaver's chest resting on a small cushion on top of a wooden block and his arms extended down toward the floor, fingertips working on the fine straw. It's a posture that is not just uncomfortable, it's painful. The younger generation, if they weave at all, prefer to work on simpler pieces such as ladies' handbags, fans and animal figures, which take less time and effort to complete.

"I suppose," muses Black, "that the question is not so much why people might not want to weave bent over all night, as it is how they evolved the technique in the first place, and why they have practiced it for centuries. Sometimes I wonder if a really good industrial engineer could study the process and come up with some kind of jig or something that would allow the weavers to create traditional hats without having to weave in the traditional posture."

Throughout the week, Black took photos of the weavers while they worked at finishing the edges and trimming straw from the hats. They warmed to him and took him out to other houses where other weavers were working.

"During that first incredible week, quite simply, I fell in love with the people, the hats, the weaving, the art form. And I became determined to do more than just buy a few dozen hats. I had found a mission. I wanted to preserve the art, to ensure that three generations from now the world will still be able to wear, admire and treasure Montecristi Finos."

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