Feb 6, 2017

Jipijapa, Mexican Version of an Ecuadorian Treasure Called Panama

A beautiful thing is never perfect.

Egyptian proverb

Bright hat in darker cave
Say that three times fast: jipijapa – jipijapa – jipijapa… 

An interesting name for a small town in Ecuador famous for its woven hats.  As much as I tried however, I couldn’t find out what it meant or its origin. 
Hat weaving was first recorded in Ecuador in the 1630’s but it seems that Jipijapa didn’t make it on the hat map until the mid-1850’s. This is where some of the famous and beautiful ‘Panama’ (yes Panama, by name only!) hats are woven.  The hats are made from a special type of palm-like plant nicknamed after the town, jipijapa palm or toquilla (straw hat) palm. 

Its Latin name has a more interesting story.  It goes by Carludovica Palmata, from Carlos IV, the King of Spain, and his wife Louise, or Ludovica in Latin.  Botanists of the time knew who to butter up to.

Jipijapa, the plant
Jipijapa requires a fair amount of water to grow to about 5-8 feet (1.5 – 2.5 meters) tall.  This evergreen is not a true palm.  Each plant is a cluster of about one-inch-thick stalks topped by a dark umbrella-like leaf nearly 3 feet wide.  Young leaves and shoot tips are edible and said to taste like asparagus.  The plants need 2-3 years to mature before its youngest and most delicate light colored leaves can be harvested to make the famous white/cream hats. The lengthy process is still mostly done by hand. 

Weaving in a cool dark cave. 
Conch shell helps smooth newly woven portion over wooden frame
Some remarkably intricate and beautiful clothing is also woven of this delicate leaf for dancers participating in traditional events.  Older, tougher parts of the plant can be used to make brooms, mats, purses, baskets, small ornaments, or earrings, i.e. things that do not need the flexibility of hats. 

Called ‘weaving white gold’, these handcrafted hats have been the foundation of Ecuador’s economy since 1835.  When first discovered by the Spanish soldiers, handwoven hats worn by the natives looked like what nuns and widows wore in Spain called tocas or toquillas.  However, their interesting translucence (due to the thinness of the weave) made the Spanish think they were first made of vampire skin. 
Natural and chemical died tallos.  Brooms in background.
Its name can be attributed to a few facts:
  • Panama was a major center of trade in the 19th-century and Ecuadorian hats were shipped from there.
  • Thousands were sold to fortune/gold hunters passing through Panama while making their way to California in 1849. 
  • During the Spanish American War, the U.S. government bought 50,000 hats for the troops from merchants based in Panama.
  • During the building of the Panama Canal, these hats became very popular at the construction site where they were well suited to the hot, humid climate.
  • After photos of President Teddy Roosevelt in a white straw hat, supervising the work on the Panama Canal, appeared in American newspapers, sales of the “Panama hat” soared worldwide.
Jipi-palms don’t appear to deplete the soil so more land doesn’t need to be cleared for sustainable production.  Extraction of the plant’s fibers appears to be maintainable because the weavers periodically (about every 30-60 days) remove only an inner leaf without killing the plant. 
They do weave with true palm (palma Mexicana) leaves but the result is a coarser and stiffer weave, not one that can be rolled up or folded.  Much cheaper hats are made of this type of palm.
At its height of production, around 2000, Ecuador shipped out two million hats around the world. 
My new hat, their old hats.
But why am I speaking of this when we are in Mexico? 

We drove north to visit Bécal.  The narrow roads leading there are lined with trees just tall enough to feel we are traveling in a living tunnel.  Many times, brilliant flashes of neon greens or bright blues indicate birds dancing along the way, darting in and out of dense foliage, impossible to follow. 
Several weaver birds’ nests precariously hang down over the road – not sure why these birds would choose such places for their homes.  Various unattended fires creep along the road pushing back the rapid growth of the jungle.  We pass many old people walking or on tricycles, machete at their sides, carrying heavy bundles of kindling, returning home or heading to the market. 
Bringing back kindling - long trek home with heavy bundle
We are heading to a place where the Mexican version of the Ecuadorian Panama hats have been made for generations. 

Mauritius and his uncle Julio making 'Panama' hats in a cave in their backyard. 
I can see why it is called: ‘Performing a finger dance with straw’ – they go so fast, it is blurry.
Around about the same time (1850-1860) that hats were made famous in Jipijapa and Montecristi, Ecuador, Father Ignacio Barzuna, a catholic priest introduced a wide variety of Guatemala palms to Bécal, about an hour north of Campeche.  The artistic Mayas of this area quickly started weaving hats, the main difference was that they were working in a much drier environment and had to devise a way to keep the fibers moist and cool.  They started working in caves in their backyards. 

Julio telling us about the trade while making a hat
At its peak, Bécal had about 2,000 caves where people wove the famous Jipi or ‘Panama’ hats. The cave environment allowing the weavers to interlace the pattern more tightly without fear of tearing or cracking the ‘straw’.  It also prevents sweat from the weavers’ hands to stain the fiber.  Although not the same quality as the Montecristi fine woven hats, Bécal holds its own with some of its artisans’ hats fetching upwards of US $15,000; while the most expensive ones in Montecristi go for US $25,000.  Yep – I would need to mortgage my house for one of those gems. 
Steps down to the cave. 
Moss shows just how humid it stays down here.
Panama hat grading does not exist, whether you are in Mexico or Ecuador, there is no regulatory body even though many people are calling for one.  Each vendor will tempt you with fancy but meaningless grade numbers to entice a sale. It’s difficult, unless you have seen or handled thousands of hats to know if you have a winner or not.  It is probably better to look at your budget and follow your tastes. Of course, color, tightness and evenness of weave, patterns, and general look of the hat can be assessed. 


Natural colors.  They use chaya (green), mora (pink), achiote (reddish-brown), etc.

I settled on a hat that had been died with blackberry (mora), giving it a slight old-rose tone.  I think it is pretty and stylish.  Julio tells me it is third grade, whatever that means.  I cannot afford a first grade anyway…

The people we visited have woven hats for four generations.  The whole place smells of plants, heavenly and refreshing, especially after a long drive.  They own two acres of land where they grow the jipijapa ‘palm’ they need to make the various items they weave.  They told me everyone knows how to weave, from the youngest to the oldest, males and females.  These hats are becoming so expensive most locals cannot afford them, opting instead for cheap foreign fares.  Walking around the various villages, only old men and women were seen wearing them.  The world market is also slacking due to imports of very cheap products.

What surprised me the most about the hats were just how super light and flexible they are.  As a feather on my head, divine.  Hats can take anywhere from a couple of days to six months to make.  Anywhere from 6 to 48 cogollos (young unopened palm leaf) are used to make a hat.  It takes 6-10 people to make a hat, each having his/her own specialty. 
Bird on cogollo bundle

In succession, there is the picker of the cogollos, often done by the weaver but not always. The cogollos are then sorted and only the best strips are kept to make the hats.  At that stage, they are called tallos.  They are boiled, dried, and whitened with sulfur in a special ‘oven’.  Then comes the weaving of the hats.  Next the rematador takes care of making the brim’s edge by back-weaving the ‘straw’.  This prevents the hat from unraveling.  Next the azocador tightens the work of the rematador.  For some hats that only takes 3 full circles around the hat for finer work, 5 circles.  This prevents the brim from puckering.  The cortador trims the excess but not all the way yet, leaving about one inch.  It is used to hang the hat when drying so the woven part is left untouched.  The hats are then washed and bleached.  After that they are handled by the apaleador who beat the hats with a special mallet on a rounded stone to soften its fibers.  It then goes back to the cortador to finish trimming the excess.  The planchador follows and he (usually a man as it takes a lot of strength) irons the hat.  We are near the end.  At this point the hat gets blocked (shaped), a process that can take up to 2 weeks. 
Plantilla, this is how it all begins.


Per Brent Black (https://www.brentblack.com/ - 30 years of history and amazing pictures of Panama hat making!), expert blocker, the most difficult part of this process is figuring out what part of this round hat will be the front.  Finally, a sweat band is stitched inside the hat and a decorative band applied on the outside.  Some hats are dyed with natural or chemical dies adding another step and another drying.  Voilà… 

Where dyes are heated.  The fiber soaks for 20 minutes.  Vinegar is used to fix the color.
Did you keep track of just how many steps were involved in that process?
If a hat is not blocked by hand, it is pressed in between a mold at 220oC for a mere 3 seconds or it will dry up or burn.  The lesser quality hats are usually pressed.  The folks we visited had 32 different kinds of molds, from hats for kids to large Texas style hats and anything in between. 

Using propane to heat the press
That many steps are also what makes it difficult for any one person to make a good living with hat making; too many expert hands in that process.  The newer generation is not interested in this type of work. 

If you buy one of the best pliable, rollable hats, they come with what looks like a cigar box for your rolled hat to fit in. 

For more great pictures of Bécal hat making:  http://www.coupleofpics.com/story-of-jipijapa/

Local older ladies still wear the embroidered dresses.
 At the market selling flowers.
Love the heart purse to go with native dress. 
The tricycle she is sitting in serves as a taxi.


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