The landscape is reminiscent of an extract from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cuenca, home to the iconic Panama hat, feels as if wrapped up in a surreal, enchanted yet serene green blanket. The few houses and buildings that meet the eye when heading away from the city and into the highlands are reminiscent of colonial times, and suddenly one is transported a century back in time.
Expertly hand-made from plant straw, few items are as much a style, class and fashion statement as the Panama. Named after its first appearance during the construction of the Panama Canal in the first decade of the 20th century, Panamas hats have been woven in the Andean region for over four millennia. Since roughly the 15th century to the mid-1830s the Ecuadorian regions of Montecristi and Jipijapa were the only locations dedicated to producing the hats, to the degree that they could not keep up with the demands of the market, and retail prices reached previously unseen heights. The craft then was taken to the highlands of Cuenca, and a proper industry started taking shape, which even boasted a compulsory apprenticeship program.
A genuine Panama hat – other than the arbitrary inexpensive varieties– always comes from Ecuador and is hand-woven from young, plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant (Carludovica palmata), hand blocked and hand finished. The production adheres to the traditional processes, although some aspects of manufacturing such as distribution, and specifically the 'blocking' of the hats have changed and benefited from more modern equipment and facilities. Overall, the making of a Panama hat is a labor intensive process as each single process step must be completed by hand: the weaving, trimming, beating, blocking and even the sewing of the band and lining.
Panama hat quality is a heavily disputed subject – which is not the least due to the astronomic prices that some hats of extremely high, but equally rare, quality command and which can reach the equivalent of the cost of a new, well equipped car. Sadly, none of the profits normally get to benefit the weavers themselves, and it is the middlemen – Ecuadorian and Westerners alike – that make small fortunes off the weavers' skills. The world of most hat weavers rarely extends beyond their villages, fields, houses and close knit communities – a fact that leaves them unaware of the rather decadent price tag their hats boast in exclusive shops around the world. It is a historic reality that the straw harvesters and weavers are the lowest recognised, and paid, links in an global trade where it is not skill, but commercial greed that dictates the price on either end of the supply chain. The inability to generate enough income to survive and maintain families in a modest, yet adequate way through Panama hat weaving results in fewer and fewer people learning the ropes of the trade, and eventually taking it up as an occupation. In addition, the hard, painstaking work involved in creating high-end hats is a large financial risk for the weaver: one small mistake or imperfect fibre can diminish the hat's value to an extent that puts the weaver's livelihood at risk. As a consequence, few are willing to make the effort, while most only want to weave the easier, lower quality, but quicker to finish off hats.
To weave a Panama hat of the highest quality, one that shows about a thousand of weaves per square inch, can take up to four months, but only some dozen weavers in the whole of Ecuador still posses the skill required to make these "Montecristi superfino" hats. The situation is such that even the Financial Times Magazine reported not too long ago that within fifteen or twenty years the production of these hats, as well as the whole of the Ecuadorian Panama hat industry, will possibly be part of history. The lack of new blood joining the ranks of experiences weavers and learning the skill, combined with the competition that arises from paper-based and short-lived fast-fashion imitations may well be the last nail in the Panama hat's coffin.
There are a few, however, that are preoccupied with maintaining the historical Panama hat weaving tradition, and reviving the communities that make a living through the production and sale of the hats. One of them is Carry Somers and her company Pachacuti. Established in 1992, Pachacuti's aim is to improve the lives of Andean Panama hat producers and their communities. The company is concerned there are no young weavers joining the co-operatives as they choose to migrate to urban areas for other work. Pachacuti means 'world upside-down' in the Quechua language and the term describes the company's ultimate goal to redress the inequalities in the global fashion industry through demonstrating that it is possible to run a successful business that benefits the producers and is environmentally sustainable.
Like many poorer Latin American countries, Ecuador's society relies on women in all aspects of life, economically and socially. Over the past decades, vast numbers of men have emigrated to make their luck elsewhere. In most cases, this means the United States, but also Spain and other European countries score high in this context. As a consequence, over eighty percent of the population in Sigsig are women, most of which are responsible for the family income, and left to themselves to care for their children.
For the past nineteen years, Pachacuti has been working with two Panama hat weaving co-operatives in the Sigsig and Azogues regions. All of the co-operatives' members are Panama heat weaving women, aged from their mid-thirties to their late seventies. They weave hats at a rate of one every other day for lower grade hats, to one a month, or one every couple of months for the higher grades. It is also women weavers who are elected to the co-operative's management roles, who organise the hat acquisition, the selling to buyers, the restocking with dye stuffs, and who carry out the entire production process from weaving to finishing.
The geographical isolation of most of the Panama hat producing communities, and their naiveté in all things related to the international trade that originates in their products, leaves 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 ('dogs' in Spanish) whose unscrupulous purchasing methods force the weavers to accept a low price for their labour. On the other hand, the weavers' focus on selling their products for the best possible price makes them liable to blissfully ignore long-standing trust relationships in favour of quick cash.
Much of Pachacuti's efforts have gone into ensuring that more of the money stays in the hand of the producers. In doing so, it became the world's first company certified under the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) Sustainable Fair Trade Management System. As a next step, Pachacuti is currently participating - again as a pilot - in the EU's Geo Fair Trade project, which aims at setting objective, goal oriented standards of sustainable development combined with well-defined and measurable social, environmental criteria. One key aspect of this project is to fully trace down all products from their origin to the market place in order to avoid anonymity and falsification.
Beyond the 'typical' fair trade commitment, Pachacuti's approach also means to support the weavers in acquiring the skills necessary not only to weave the hats, but to also see production through to the best possible quality finishing. Additional programs were provided to get weavers to produce quality rather than quantity and include: a pension plan for elderly weavers; buying eye glasses so they can weave finer hats and make fewer mistakes, and therefore receive higher payment; pre-financing of capital expenditure; and supporting community development projects that ensure poor families can afford to educate their children.
After all, unless the weavers see a future for their trade, they won't encourage their children to follow them and become Panama hat weavers. And it is only if youngsters decide to step into the historical footprints of their ancestors that the Panama hat will remain a fashion icon also into the next century.
To find out more about Pachacuti's work, and their Panama hat, please visit http://panamas.co.uk.
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).