Hope for Panama Hat Weavers in Ecuador

The finest hats are woven of straw that is so thin and fine it looks like linen. | Photo by Andi McDaniel
The finest hats are woven of straw that is so thin and fine it looks like linen. | Photo by Andi McDaniel

This piece was written by Mary Stucky, founder of Round Earth Media, before the Next Generation Journalism model was established. To read more about the model, visit the main site here.

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Originally broadcast on The World on November 5, 2009

Some of the finest straw hats in the world come from Ecuador. The best sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Most of that money goes to the dealers and retail stores — the weavers themselves don’t earn enough to live on. But a retired U.S. advertising executive says he has a plan to create more demand for the hats and pay the best weavers a decent wage. Mary Stucky reports from the central coast of Ecuador.

The following is a transcript of a radio report. To listen to the broadcast, please click on the link above.

Mary Stucky:  The sun has gone down in the dry, dusty village of Pile. The villagers here are settling in for the night. But work has just begun for Simon Espinal.

Simon Espinal (speaking Spanish): “All my life I’ve liked this job of weaving hats. And I pray to God to give me the good eyes I need to do this job well.”

Mary Stucky:  Espinal works in the bedroom of his house. He stands hunched over at almost a 90-degree angle. His chest rests on a block of wood. He reaches down below that, and starts to work on a hat he’s weaving around a circular block. This is the traditional position for weaving and it leaves Espinal’s neck and shoulders in pain. The 39–year-old weaves at night when it’s cooler. That’s because a single drop of sweat can ruin a hat. The process can be nerve wracking.

Simon Espinal: “When I start a hat I’m thinking when am I going to finish? When I finish the hat I’m proud but very worried while I’m weaving.”

Mary Stucky:  It takes 3 months of this painstaking labor to make a single hat. But oh, what a hat. The strands of straw are so fine, and are woven so tightly, it appears to be made, not of straw, but of linen. They’re called Panama hats because they were worn by workers who built the Panama Canal. The finest sell for mind-boggling thousands of dollars, but the weavers themselves usually make less than 2 thousand dollars a year. Even Simon Espinal, who is considered one of the finest weavers alive, even he has thought about leaving Ecuador in search of work.

Simon Espinal:  “I have thought of it but then I think of my family and my children left behind in Ecuador and growing up without a father.”

Mary Stucky:  But now, there may be a way to keep Simon Espinal home with his family thanks to a retired advertising executive from Hawaii. Brent Black discovered Panama hats 20 years ago when he came to Ecuador on vacation.

Brent Black:  “As I got off the bus there was a little kid maybe 9 or 10 saying Meester, Panama Hat Meester. So he took me up the hill.”

Mary Stucky:  Up the hill to meet the weavers, who all work in their homes. Black was amazed by the hats he saw. And he saw something else…. a business opportunity that would mean some money for him and also for the weavers. He became a man on a mission.

Brent Black: “I think it’s critically important that these people have a quality of life that allows them to do their art. It would help if he’s not totally consumed by hunger or something.”

Mary Stucky:  Black wanted to sell more hats at higher prices and, at the same time, pay the hat-makers an equitable cut of the sale price.

Brent Black: “That’s part of what I’m trying to do. Get people in the buying market to understand the value of the hats so that the retail prices can more closely approximate what they should be in order to generate enough for the guys who are making them.”

Mary Stucky:  So Black brought high-tech marketing to this low-tech craft.  Black developed a website to sell the hats. The website features beautiful photos of the hat making process.  It begins with trekking into the rain forest to cut the palm fibers that make up the hats. After the hat is woven, there’s still work to be done. In fact it has to be ironed. The men who do that are called planchadors.  And the late Nestor Franco was revered as one of the best.  Black clicks to a photo of Franco, who ironed the hats until they were as smooth as silk.

Brent Black:  “You can see the old iron heating in the coals. Nestor would build his fire first thing in the morning.”

Mary Stucky:  The hats on the website cost from about $400 dollars to more than $10,000, depending on the fineness of the weave. A weaver can make up to 40% of that price, once the hat sells. Black says one weaver received a check for a single hat that was equal to what he used to earn in an entire year.  Black ships to buyers all over the world—he just sent a hat to the actor Peter O’Toole.  But all this may not be enough to save the craft.   Some say it’s too late, that there aren’t enough fine weavers left because so many have emigrated in search of better paying jobs. Others say there aren’t enough people willing to pay such high prices for hats.  But for the several hundred weavers Black works with, life is getting better. Simon Espinal is one of them. He says that before he went to work for Brent Black, he sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Simon Espinal: “Thanks to Brent and my work, my life is changed. I could buy a little house. I pray to God to keep Brent alive and with good health so he can keep helping me this way.”

Mary Stucky:  Espinal says if Brent Black can keep selling enough of his super-fine panama hats, he’ll keep making them. he’ll stay in Pile with his family, bending over, patiently weaving straw into tight, tiny rows, after the sun goes down.