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Weaving Panama Hats
By M. Glen Fling
PT is not on the neck which It was in 1623 that the 700 slaves, who
connects two continents had massacred their leader and the sailthat the so called Panama ors and officers of the ship in which they hats are made, but down had sailed under Pizarro from Panama, in the body of one of on their way to the mines of Peru, those continents.
landed at Atacames, took possession of South of the Equator, the town, murdered every man in the where the days are hot and the people place, took the women for wives and lazy, down in Ecuador and Brazil, the formed the nucleus of a strange race fibre hats, which have been the favorite called Zombargoes. These people are a of gentlemen for several summers, are mixture of pure African and Cayapa woven by the hundreds and they are Indians and they are the real discoverers called Panama only by the Europeans of the Panama hat.
and Americans, most of whom believe The women of Atacames are famous them to be the product of the Isthmus, hat makers and although the very finest from which they are shipped.
hats do not come from Atacames, this The history of the Panama hat, place produces an excellent grade and broadly speaking, dates back to Pizarro, in larger quantities than any other town. for when he, with his army, landed in The best hats come from Jipijapa in northern Ecuador, at the place now the province of Manobi, but the output called Atacames, he took with him a of Jipijapa is very meagre, for reasons people who were destined to become the which will be explained later. most famous hat makers of the world. As the Panama hat is the only manuing. They will tell the very rext buyer who comes along the very same thing.
The only way to deal with these people is to scour the country tirelessly during the working season, gathering up all the hats available and paying spot cash for them. They must not be left in the huts over night, for a native considers it a clever deal to sell again a hat which has already teen bought and paid for by some unsuspecting middle man, who has been “stupid”
enough to leave it behind him NATIVE Women of ECUADOR WEAVING Fine GRADE OF
for a few days. "PANAMA" Hats.
“No trust” is the motto of
both buyer and maker, and factured product exported from South "no trust," in every sense of the term, America, and because the profit made on alone wins the cargo. this trade is above “fair," it would seem A buyer, engaged by a big Englislı, that American and European dealers American, German or French firm—and would have to but place their orders and all these countries import their Panama write their checks, to feel sure that the hats from the same South American goods would be forthcoming. But in provinces-employs a whole army of stead of this satisfactory condition ex- middle men and it is very necessary that isting, the importer has all sorts of they should know each other and have difficulties in having his orders filled. a thorough understanding as to the dis
All responsibility rests upon the “mid- tricts they are to cover, else they bid dle" man, who must speak Spanish and against each other and pay treble what be thoroughly conversant with the they need for their hats. peculiarities of the natives with whom This bidding against each other is a he is dealing.
great scheme among the natives, who sell It is not a bit of use to place an order in the Market Place. They take their with the hat makers a season or two lats to the public square and auction ahead. In the first place the hat makers them off, even selling the hat they are are an ignorant, irresponsible set, working only to secure food and tobacco, totally lacking in ambition or any sense of business obligation. It is impossible to organize them into any kind of a dependable working force, for they refuse to conform to any known set of labor laws.
A promise with these people is merely a gracious act to silence the "signor" and is made only to be broken, hence for a middle man to receive the promise of two or three families of hat makers that they will sell him their entire stock, means absolutely noth
wearing, which, by the way is usually and these strange workmen are crafty of the softest, finest grade. It is not enough to demand each day's wage at unusual for father and son to bid against the end of the day—and their workers each other when they spot an anxious scattered, drinking and rioting or permiddle man and thus get the price up. haps lazily making hats in their own Here too several middle men buying for homes for less enterprising nations. All the same firm are apt to outbid each such plans of organization have had to other by mistake. These are a few be abandoned. of the reasons why the cost of a first The nature of the work necessitates class Panama makes it a luxury. short hours. So delicate is the fibre of
Another reason is the scarcity of the which the best hats are made that it splits finest grades. There are several causes and curls if worked with in the heat of for this. In the first place the natives the day. Early morning and late evenof the mountainous regions of Colombia ings are the only times that the finest and Ecuador have an aversion to selling hats can be woven and even then the a great number of hats to one buyer and work is done almost entirely under a firm has to resort to all kinds of strate- water. gies to get a big order filled.
The plant from which the Panama The more hats you want, the bigger hats are made is known to the natives price you are asked. For instance if as the jipijapa (pronounced hippyyou could buy a third grade hat for three hahpa) and to the naturalist as the. pesos or $1.50, two hats of the same Carludovica palmata. It belongs to the grade would cost you 12 pesos or $6.00 cactus family and grows in great proand an order of 50 hats would be looked fusion in Ecuador and Brazil and is upon with suspicion and very likely re- found sparingly in Peru. The natives fused.
of Peru steal this grass in great quantiAlthough the first Panama hat was ties from Ecuador, there being a tax made something over 200 years ago, put upon it by the Ecuadorian Governthese natives have not progressed one ment, and, as the weavers of Peru are step in their methods of trading and, skilled hat makers, they often reap a rich although they could always sell all they harvest from their stolen grasses. This can make to one firm, they prefer to grass must be gathered at just the right deal with many, sometimes at smaller time. If too green it cannot be worked profits.
well and if over-ripe it shows streaks of Four hours a day are the most a na- red or black, which spoil a hat. tive will work, two in the cool of the This particular palm grows in the morning and two after sunset when the shady midlands and is gathered in bundews of evening are falling. The women dles and carried by the natives to their sometimes work for an hour or so when huts in the Andes, 6,000 feet above the the sun rides high, but they cannot be sea. It is at this great altitude that the depended upon to do so.
best hats are made and from here they The stomach is the only master obeyed have to be transported in slow stages by by these weavers. They work only when mules to the rivers and along the rivers they want food or tobacco or drink and in flat boats to the Pacific Ocean, or when the appetite is satisfied for to-day directly overland on the mules to Panama and there is a plenty for to-morrow no from whence they are shipped to all thought is taken for the day after. The points. whole world may go hatless, while they Mules are scarce and in great demand loaf about their mud huts or loll around in South America, hence the cost of the bazaars.
transportation is enormous. One mule Thrifty, methodical Germans, driven can carry only a small load of hats nearly to distraction by this shiftless through the mountainous districts and manner of working, have tried number the difficult passes make it impossible to less times to establish factories, where use wagons. The usual rate of transthe zombargoes would work 6 hours portation by mule is $250 for 70 miles. daily, five days a week, only to find their Small wonder that Thomas W. Lawson rooms deserted after the first pay day- was charged $300 for “the gem” of a
cargo. Speaking of gems, not more than manner. From either edge they are one particularly fine hat is found in a rolled toward the middle. Thus, when lot of several hundred. They usually the rolling is completed, the fibre, looked run second, third and fourth grade, at transversely, resembles a pretzel-it which retail here for from $5 to $25. A is an oval formed of two adjacent cir$50 hat is a prize, one worth $100.00 a cles. The fiber is now pressed out flat, "gem” and a creation superior to the whereupon it is ready for the process of last mentioned is fought for, should it weaving. appear in the Market Place, by buyers of The weaving must be done in an atseveral nations.
mosphere exceedingly moist. Indian
The rarity of these gems is due to the weavers can work by natural light only care needed in weaving them and the during the first hour of daybreak and length of time and skill it takes to make the last hour of twilight. Through the them perfect.
rest of the day the sun is so warm and The jipijapa has leaves about four feet the air so dry that the fibres of the palm long and it is these leaves which are become brittle and break in the weaving. woven into head coverings. They are But at dawn and at twilight the air is gathered while young, their parallel sufficiently damp to permit of the making veins are removed, and they are split of hats of an ordinary fineness, though into shreds a half inch wide. These the extremely fine ones—those that cost shreds are not, however, separated at the from $100 up—are never worked on stalk end. Each leaf thus resembles an save by candle light. enormous plume.
The Indians—men, women, boys and The split green leaves are immersed in girls—sit on the ground before their boiling water for a short time, and little houses to work, the hat block, a afterward bleached in the sun till they are wooden sphere, between their knees, a white. The fibres now are separated bucket of water beside them. Their from the leaves and rolled in a peculiar straw is pliable and every moment they
Panama hats cannot be made save by hats appear in America unless they are those born and bred to the art. The worn into this country by a crowned little children of South America set to head. The finest hat ever made was work on little native hats of coarse palm sent to King Edward when he was fibre as soon as they are 6 or 7 years Prince of Wales. It was so light and of age. They pursue the work daily, delicate it could be folded into a package advancing each season to a fibre of finer which would fit in his wallet. quality, and in twelve or thirteen years— If the King has taken the proper care by the time, that is to say, that they of his hat it is as beautiful to-day as it are 20—they are able to make Panamas was the day he received it. Mr. William of a fairly good sort. The majority, C. Hesse, who is the Government authough, never become expert enough to thority on Panama hats, and from whom weave the finest hats. The best weavers the illustrations for this article were se—they who have the skill and patience cured, gives the following rules on the to make the $100 and $200 hats—are care of your best Panama. always few.
“Don't crush up a Panama hat as A hat of the finest quality is six though it were a cloth cap. It can not months in the weaving. Its texture is stand such treatment; it will break. The like damask and its fibres are as delicate stories of the indestructibility of Panama as threads of linen. A straw broken, a hats are untrue. knot obtruding on the pattern, decreases Don't attempt to clean a Panama hat the value of the hat from 50% to 75%. yourself, except with soap and water. It
When the hats leave the hands of the is folly to use lemon or acid on this sort natives they are by no means the beau- of hat, and it is the height of folly to let tiful, finished article we see temptingly the irresponsible and ignorant street