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Artisanal Heritage

The village of Sigsig moves to the rythym of the mountains. It moves to the rythym of thousands of weaving hands within those mountains. The weaving of panama hats tell a story about this community, defining the people who live there and the way in which they live, interweaving social and political history.

It’s 5.30am on Sunday morning and Margarita is finishing the remate on one of her hats, turning the straw back and interweaving it in loose rows around the brim. When she has finished, she won’t trim the straw but will leave it protruding from the brim of the campana. Campana means bell in Spanish and is the name given in Ecuador to the hood, the unfinished hat before blocking. Margarita carefully places both the hats she has completed that week into a bag. Although dawn promises sunshine, weather in the highlands is unpredictable and her precious cargo needs protection.  One of the hats has taken her a month to weave. She knows that she will get a good price for her work as so few of the weavers now have the skills, or the eyesight, to weave Pachacuti’s finest hat, the Connoisseur.

Today is not a normal Sunday. Today is Palm Sunday and and Margarita is looking forward to joining hundreds of people in the late afternoon for a special weavers’ procession and Mass. Also, Don Mark from Pachacuti is visiting from the UK and is bringing a film crew with him. Margarita always enjoys visits from Pachacuti. On previous visits they have taught her exercises to prevent repetitive strain injury which made all of the weavers giggle as they had never done any exercises before; brought an optometrist to the village who carried out eye tests and gave her a pair of glasses and, of course, there are the feasts to mark their arrival. Sometimes it’s guinea pig, but this time she’s heard that Don Mark has bought a whole roast pig from Gulaceo which has the best pork in the whole of Ecuador.

Margarita walks down the track for half an hour before catching a ride in the back of a truck heading for Sigsig. Sunday is market day and everyone is heading into town. Traditionally the straw for Panama hats was transported from the coastal cloudforest up to the local market to be sold to the weavers on Sundays. The weavers would then take their straw to be blessed at Mass, before returning to their communities to start the cycle of weaving hats all over again the following week.

Pachacuti’s weavers all wear Panama hats when they come to market. The weavers hats are finely woven, but unlike the soft, supple Panamas we cherish, their hats are bleached white and stiffened, protected by a red and white or blue and white sriped plastic bag on the frequent rainy days.

Panama hat weavers have been vulnerable to exploitation over the years. 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.

Margarita doesn’t need to make the rounds of intermediaries to see how much she can make today as she is a member of an Association and her hats are made to order. She knows that Pachacuti always buys as many grade 16 hats as she is able to weave in a year and the other hat in her bag is for an order which Don Mark says is for Japan. Margarita left school at the age of 12. She hasn’t even been to the coast of Ecuador and isn’t sure where Japan is, but she is grateful people from around the world want to buy her hats. She relies on the income she earns from weaving to supplement the money she earns from growing corn and blackberries.

In the past, everyone in Sigsig wove sombreros de paja toquilla, as they are known locally. (Weavers never call them a Panama hat. The hats were called toquillas by the Spanish who thought they resembled a 16th century brimless or narrow brimmed hat known as a toque.  Panama hat weavers are known as toquilleras). Now, it seems that most people are leaving.

Almost all the children at the local school have one or both parents living overseas. Women outumber men by 7 to 1. Coyotes, human traffickers, come to the village and offer to take them to the United States. Margarita has heard that coyotes charge up to $10,000. She knows people who have come home after working for years to pay back their debts, making little for themselves at the end of day. But the dream of a better life in another country is compelling amongst the younger generation.

In 2012 UNESCO declared that the art of weaving a Panama hat in Ecuador would be added to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Margarita hoped that this would bring about a revival in weaving, that the younger members of her community would start to learn and value this skill again, but hasn’t happened.   Margarita has heard that Pachacuti has funded a new weaving group in the village which is working specifically to revive the weaving tradition amongst the younger members of the community and paying them good prices. She hopes this will make a difference to the migration, giving young women a reason to remain in their communities, keeping their families together and passing on their culture and traditions.

In the evening, Margarita returns home. She carries with her the deep blue straw she collected from the Association that morning, together with the measurements for the crowns and brims of the hats which she needs to weave for Pachacuti’s next order. These hats will be going to Australia. Margarita smiles as she imagines all of the people in different countries around the world who are all wearing hats which she has woven here. in the mountains of Ecuador.

The next morning, the rythym of the mountains begins again. Thousands of hands in dozens of communities, all starting the first vueltas, or rings, on a new hat, adding in more straw as the hat grows, dampening the campana from time to time with a corn cob. Stopping to milk the cow, cook a caldo for lunch, plant potatoes and harvest some beans. Integrating the rythym of weaving a hat with the rythym of their world, their family and their community.