Crisp, elegant, light as air, the colour of fine old ivory, a Montecristi superfino Panama hat is the artistic pinnacle of a South American weaving tradition whose origins date back centuries. As much a work of art as they are of fashion, an exceptional specimen can cost tens of thousands of dollars – many times its weight in gold. It is a collaborative art. Woven from the fibres of the Toquilla palm (Carludovica palmata) by master weavers who will take anywhere from three to six months in the task, these works-in-progress will then pass through the hands of a tag-team of specialist finishing artisans whose titles – the rematador, the cortador, the planchador and the apeleador – lend the creation of a Montecristi Panama hat something of the hot-blooded formality of the bullring. Indeed the term rematador is drawn directly from bullfighting. There, it is the finisher, one who “performs some act that will provide an emotional or artistic climax,” as Hemingway writes in Death in The Afternoon. In the making of a Montecristi Panama hat the rematador is the specialist weaver who performs the exquisite back-weave to seal the brim, thereby bringing to an artistic close the weaving phase of the hat’s creation. The other artisans – the cortador, the planchador and the apeleador then step in to prepare the hat body for blocking, another old-fashioned time-consuming process using shaped wooden forms, steam, skilled hands and a discerning hatmaker’s eye to sculpt the raw hat body into the styles – fedora, optimo, plantation etc. – we recognize as a Panama hat.
It is often said that weaving such exquisite Panama hats is a dying art, and so it may be, but even in the glory days of the hat trade, back in early years of the 20th century, there were few weavers with the skill to weave a true superfino – think of baseball players who can bat .400 and you’ll have an idea of just how rare and special this talent really is. These days virtually all the great master hat weavers live in a single obscure village called Pile, in the jungle-clad hills behind the town of Montecristi, on the coast of Ecuador. Of these the greatest is said to be Simón Espinal, whose hats average over 3000 weaves per square inch and whose finest, to date, has nearly 4200 weaves per square inch. You have almost certainly never seen such hats or anything like them. They are extremely rare. In a good year the 51 year-old artisan will weave, perhaps, two or three hats, no more. Each will sell for thousands of dollars and bear about as much resemblance to the Panama hats you’ll find in a department store – even a posh department store – as an Isfahan silk rug does to a woven dime store place mat. Were he Japanese, and living in Japan, Simón would no doubt be regarded as a living treasure. In Ecuador, alas, he is a peasant. Here is a sample of images I took recently of Simón Espinal practicing his art, along with some of the other great weavers of Pile, the finishing artisans in Montecristi and a weaving school established in Pile to help pass on the skills to the next generation. A collection of these images appeared recently in the New York Times The World Through A Lens series – you can view it here