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A Legendary Hat

Journey of a Panama Hat

Expertly hand-woven from the palm-like grass Carludovica Palmata, few items are as much of a style, class and fashion statement as the Panama Hat. Named after its first appearance on the world stage during the construction of the  Panama Canal in the first decade of the 20th century, Panamas hats have always come from Ecuador and have been woven in the Andean region for over 6000 years, the earliest example being depicted on a clay Valdivia pot.

Panama hat production in Montecristi and Jipijapa

In the early 1600s, the Spanish conquistadors exploited forced native labour to produce Panama hats for profit, using european hat shapes to replace the traditional Ecuadorian bat wing style. The coastal villages of Jipijapa and Montecristi, where small-scale weaving took place, gave their names to the hats produced there. The name Montecristi is still associated with the Panama Hat, thanks to the skills of the weavers in producing the finest of hats.

In the late 18th century José Pavon and Hipolito Ruiz, botanists from the royal gardens in Madrid, named the plant which provides the straw Carludovica Palamata, a merging of the names of  King Carlos IV of Spain and his wife Ludovica.
In 1835 Manuel Alfaro, a Spanish entrepreneur, arrived in Montecristi and quickly realised the economic potential of the toquilla hat, setting up his own chain of production from the straw plantations to the weavers.

Panama hat production arrives in the Andes

At the same time the authorities in Cuenca, high up in the Andes, opened a hat factory and later a training workshop in an attempt to alleviate economic problems. The authorities made apprenticeship compulsory throughout the region with the threat of prison for those who refused. The industry in Cuenca developed quickly and utilised modern methods and organisation which led to it slowly outstripping the more traditional producers from the coast and the weaving of panama hats became one of the most lucrative economic activities in the region.

The geographical isolation of most of the Panama hat producing communities and their naiveté in all things related to the international trade in their products, left them in a position vulnerable to exploitation. On the one hand the Panama hat supply chain has traditionally been controlled by middlemen,known as ‘perros’ (meaning ‘dogs’ in Spanish) whose unscrupulous purchasing methods force the weavers to accept a very low price for their labour.

On the other hand, the weavers’ focus on selling their products for the momentarily best possible price makes them liable to blissfully ignore long-standing trust relationships in favour of quick cash.

How Pachacuti works differently

Pachacuti is the UK’s only Fair Trade hat specialist, working directly with women’s associations in Ecuador. With a Pachacuti panama, the women carry out the entire production process from weaving to finishing and thus retain far more of the final value of the hat.

Pachacuti’s approach supports the weavers in acquiring the skills necessary not only to weave the hats, but to also see the production through to the best possible quality finishing. Additional encouragement is put in place to get the weavers to produce quality rather than quantity, such as buying glasses so they can weave finer hats and make fewer mistakes and therefore will receive higher payment and providing grants for capital expenditure such as new hat blocks.

Moreover, Pachacuti finances a pension scheme, training, capital expenditure, community development projects and health care such as eye exams and new glasses. Other benefits provided by membership includes payment of medical expenses, a social premium and weekly access at the association’s headquarters to a lawyer, social worker and psychologist where required.  An ongoing annual assessment programme tracks Fair Trade and environmental progress and sets goals for future improvements.

Carry Somers, founder of Pachacuti, carried out research which identified that the Panama hat industry could end within a few decades as young people chose to migrate to urban areas or overseas for work, rather than take up hat weaving and remain within their remote rural communities.

In the village where our principal weaving association is based, 60% of children have one or both parents living overseas and the majority of young people are paying coyotes to take them through Central America and Mexico and across the border to the United States, a dangerous and expensive journey.  Contrary to this regional trend, Pachacuti’s Panama hat association grew by 15% this year.

Unless the weavers see a viable future for their trade, they won’t encourage their children to follow them and become Panama hat weavers. It is essential therefore to provide a viable, rural, sustainable livelihood, encouraging the preservation of this millenia old skill and encouraging the next generation of weavers not to desert their village in search of the ‘America Dream’.  In interviews with our weavers in April 2011, many of them had children living overseas and several of them did not even know which country their children lived in.  This high level of migration is devastating families, leading to high alcohol, truancy and suicide rates among young people.  The result is a village where almost the entire younger generation has migrated and women outnumber men by 7 to 1.

Pachacuti aims to encourage them to remain within their culture and community, raising their families in an idyllic landscape, tending their crops and animals and earning a fair wage from weaving Panama Hats.

By ensuring just remuneration for current weavers, ensuring sustainability and training a new generation in weaving techniques, Pachacuti will ensure that the Panama hat continues to be a fashion icon into the next century.