Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Panama Hat Odyssey

Panama hats were never made in Panama, though that country does produce some small and unimpressive straw hats worn only by peasants. Nothing comparable to what such famous people as former President Franklin Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, and Al Capone once put in vogue.

Panama hats got their name from the place that first sold them to the world at large, namely the Panama Canal. During the canal’s construction, workers used them against the fierce sun. But the hats had been made in Ecuador.

Americans started buying Panama hats when traveling across the United States through the canal before the transcontinental railway offered them a shorter route. In 1898, during the American-Spanish War, the U.S. government ordered 50,000 hats from Ecuador for Caribbean-bound troops. They were so popular in the 1940’s that they were Ecuador’s main export product for a number of years.

Panama hats originated in Ecuador’s Manabi Province, around the towns of Montecristi and Jipijapa, as far back as 1630. The best hats are still woven there, though much of the production of Panama hats has moved to the Andean town of Cuenca.

I had just gotten off the bus in Montecristi one early sunny Sunday when I saw a man sitting at the front of his shop. He was finishing a Panama hat he had bought from someone. I stopped to photograph him, and he presented himself as Galo Pachay

He explained that he buys unfinished hats from weavers out in the country and then finishes them for resale to one of the town’s exporters. Weavers always sell their hats unfinished, with the straw dangling all around the brims, to be handed later to an array of specialists like Pachay, starting with the rematador, who back-weaves the straw into a strong bindings.

To earn extra money, whole families around Montecristi and Cuenca weave Panama hats at home or while walking to their fields. It’s hard and patient work, taking at least 12 hours to produce the cheapest model, one that pays the weaver only about one dollar, Ecuador’s currency, minus the cost of the straw.   

“The finest of the finest may take six months to weave,” Pachay said, “and fetch up to in $1,500 in the United States. For wanting the best one available, England’s Prince Edward VII once paid his Bond Street hatter 9,300 pounds.

“But it’s a dying craft,” Pachay sighed. “Too much work for too little money, and a shrinking market. Now Brazilian peones, who used to buy our cheapest hats, buy them from the Chinese. Made of paper, they’re even cheaper.”

Flattered by my interest, Pachay stopped weaving and closed his shop to take me on an educational tour. I hired a friend of his to drive us to the village of Pile. On the way there I photographed a man hanging paja toqilla, palm leaves used in Panama hats, on a rope to dry.

Later, inside the unfurnished front room, the man and his seven-year-old daughter pulled nascent palm leaves out of their green sheaths and agitated them vigorously to separate them before laying them on the floor. Their next step would be to remove the veins and other hard parts. Younger children sat on a pile of the palm leaves.

In Pile, a woman guided us to a café’s back room, past men reeking of beer and aguardiente (sugarcane liquor). In that room another woman accepted to work on a hat for my camera. People don’t weave on Sunday. And they don’t weave during any day’s hot hours, which make the straw brittle. The best weavers prefer to weave by moonlight, or at least under an overcast sky.

Pachay took me then up the street to a split bamboo hut on stilts. An old man there was weaving a “fino,” a fine one. It would take him a month to complete. and probably earn him $40. Meanwhile, a younger relative sold Pachay an unfinished hat.

Returning to Montecristi, we stopped at a poor desert settlement near the sea. Here Pachay purchased another hat. The seller was the wife of a fisherman. Her three good- looking girls stood around as we talked to her. Though the eldest was only twenty-two, and none were married, they already had eight children among the three of them. Though inevitably poor, they appeared very happy.

Before bringing me back to a bus, Pachay and his friend took me to a jipijapa palm plantation.  A worker there cut a young shoot, split it open, and showed me the tender green leaves inside waiting like chicks in eggs to come to light.
“That’s the stuff of panamas,” Pachay said. “It grows only on the coast, helped by the humid gárua, the mist that the cold Humboldt Current causes to shroud this area for six months a year. But to use it you must first boil it for five minutes, dry it, separate its fibers with your fingernails into thin even strips, wash it in cold water, and whiten it by hanging it over the smoke of burning sulfur in closed containers, like oil drums.”

The sun was much lighter early the next Sunday, when I got off another bus at some eight thousand feet up in the Andes. I had arrived at the small town of Chordeleg, a forty-minute ride from Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city (280,00 inhabitants). The fruit and produce market on one of the large squares was in full swing, and the mixed aromas of vegetable soups, chicken stews, and roast pork attracted hungry early risers to scattered food stalls.

Along a side of the plaza, a row of women was selling paja toquilla. Buyers examined it closely, going from one vendor to the next to compare the quality and haggle over the price. On the opposite side of the market, panama weavers, who had come down from the countryside, were selling their families’ production to comisionista (brokers of both sexes), who would resell them to factories in Cuenca. Those buyers also haggled and examined the products carefully. 

By taxi, that afternoon, I went to several farms to watch hats being woven. The three-generation women in one house reminded me of women of old who embroidered while enjoying an afternoon of conversation. At one house, a 12-year-old boy arrived from school to pull a chair outside his adobe house and resume his own work on a hat. At another farm, a woman was spreading paja toquilla to dry.

Back in Cuenca, I visited the Homero Ortega Panama hats factory. “You should not have bothered going to Chordeleg to photograph weavers,” Ortega said... And he led me t a corner of his factory where he had built the front part of a wattle-and-daub farm house. He asked one of his female employees to sit there, weaving a hat, and I politely took her photograph. However, she was dressed way too elegantly to look as genuine as her background.

Ever trying to help, Ortega assigned a driver to me, who took me to a number of Panama hat finishers working for him in their own houses around town. There I watched them wash, dry, shape, iron, and finish hats.

At Ortega’s factory I also watched the paja toquilla being dyed in various colors, and hats being shaped and market with the company’s logo. 

Last but not least, I observed Ortega review the many hats a comisionista had brought him. I could not have gone any faster if I had just counted them. “Experiencia,” he shrugged, when I asked him how he could spot so quickly the defects of hats he discarded.

While he finished his most urgent work, I was guided to the showroom. A couple of middle-aged American tourists were posing in the mirror, trying on various hats.

 “How much is this one,” the man asked the saleswoman, “Three hundred dollars? Would you have anything finer than that?”

 “Americans only want the best,” the sales girl told me later, something I had already heard once at an Ecuador banana plantation.

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