The craft tradition of Pile, a sleepy village southwest of Montecristi, has been woven thread by thread, without pause, without haste… The ancestral weave of paja toquilla, as delicate as the finest filigree and a true tradition that dates back to pre-Columbian times, persists to this day. We have all seen some version of the iconic South American hat born from this legendary technique, but few witness its most intimate, painstaking process.
Making a toquilla straw hat begins at the toquillal (toquilla palm groves). A humid environment, shrouded beneath the shade of lengthy palm leaves; these are optimal conditions for planting the “Panama” hat’s raw materials, uphill plantations located a good distance from the rural world. On a donkey, with a machete in hand and a saddle wide enough to carry as much palm “straw” as possible back to the community, the local “montuvio” farmer from Pile elegantly gallops through the fields. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, along these coastal oases that give respite to the scorching sun of an otherwise arid realm.
The heart of the plant must be moist for harvesting. If dry, the fibers with which hats are made will likely tear. The cut must be a careful trim; farmers know well that the deepest care in this respect is of utmost importance if they wish to keep their crop healthy. Skilful, observant, and cautious is the work of collecting toquilla straw before riding home. The process is long and crucial if one expects the final product to be its finest.
With a bundle in hand, the toquilla harvester concludes his efforts delivering the precious fiber to the craftsman or woman, who once again will check every single strand for quality, eliminating any imperfections. They then proceed to slam the leaves on the ground, causing them to separate. With a unique tool —a deer’s antler— each strand is further separated and categorized by thickness, which requires innate skill, one difficult, if not impossible, to teach a layman.
Legacy woven to perfection
The workbench is set before dawn. One cannot just weave whenever. Like a biological clock, the Pile craftsman or woman knows exactly when to begin and finish a day’s work. They cannot labor late in the morning or at noon, since the dryness of the environment can damage this delicate fiber. Likewise, one can only work with natural light; most weavers don’t continue past six in the afternoon.
Their homes are their workshops, a sacred space few are allowed to enter. Sometimes several weavers will work together, though once weaving begins, transporting the weaving stations elsewhere is difficult. They prepare their “stick”, the base with a wooden rim and pillows on which the artisans will support themselves to remain comfortably upright for hours. This very posture seems to force weavers to focus all their attention on their craft.
Weaving goes on amid conversation with those present, as hands swiftly thread the shape of the hat. In addition to keeping their traditions alive, weavers also tend to their home or have second jobs, which reduces weaving time and has placed the entire craft at risk. Pile records 173 active toquilla straw weavers among a population of approximately 1,200 people. They, thus, seek fair recognition for their painstaking work; without intermediaries lowering their prices, seeking a sustainable management program that can allow them to dedicate themselves fully to their ancestral trade.
Finesse of every piece is measured in degrees, that is, the fiber’s thickness used to weave hats or other crafts. In general, Pile boys and girls learn —and are able to weave— hats with sixteen to twenty degree-braids, which in certain areas in the Andes “is already considered fine”, as Patricia López, a weaving teacher for children at the ‘Alma de Paja Toquilla’ academy, explains. This important institution helps preserve the Pile tradition from the youngest ages, with kids that begin training to become weavers from eight years old.
Pile’s extra-fine weave is what gives these heritage hats such a historic (and economic) value, since most feature at least forty-degree braids! Simón Espinal is the star weaver in Pile, holding the record for the finest hat in the world, with a stitch well over sixty degrees! It’s so tight, you can’t pass a needle through it!
Stories like Espinal’s have made the Pile hat world famous, a craft so meticulous, he can only produce one, maybe two, a year. Yes, it takes him over six months to complete a single hat! He receives a monthly income to support his work, one which has reached celebrities like Charlie Sheen. We were told he paid over thirty-five thousand dollars for his hat! Stranger than fiction it is… the story of this small town along the sluggish shores of Manabí…
Paja toquilla: Ten Years of Heritage
“Weaving Sustainable Development in Pile, Manabí” is a UNESCO project that together with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Ecuadorian Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC), and financed by the French Embassy in Ecuador, works closely with the community of Pile to safeguard its craft legacy. Last December, the town held its second Pile Fair in commemoration of the ten years since the declaration of the toquilla straw hat as World Cultural Heritage, a status that fills local residents with great joy and pride.
Connoisseurs of this ancient trade recognize Pile as one of the most important sites to preserve, due to the detail-oriented process that dates back to the days of Eloy Alfaro, who sold countless hats during the construction of the Panama Canal and famously offered a model to Cuban historic figure José Martí. One hundred years later, a replica would arrive in Havana, where people could not believe it was crafted by hand. Even today, with all the manufacturing technology one can find in the world, it’s hard to understand how this hat is not the result of state-of-the-art machines.
These last ten years have revealed a complex struggle to preserve toquilla straw and its weaving process. Although protecting it under the UNESCO category helps demonstrate to the world why this ancient practice is so important, some of the most deeply rooted traditions —such as those preserved in Pile— are in serious threat of disappearing. For this reason, the project has managed to spread the knowledge to younger generations and promote community tourism, among other visionary development strategies.
Re-evaluating the work that “weaves development” of this unique community is essential for its growth. Pile residents are guardians of a legacy that, despite its fame, has suffered much to position itself as the amazing living relic that it is. But a bright new dawn awaits, the weaving stations ready for another day’s work and the dedicated process behind that beautiful hat waiting to don its next visitor.
ONLY IN ECUADOR
There is no “tropical”, wide-brim hat more iconic than the classic “toquilla straw”, misnamed Panama hat in English, donned by celebrities of all generations (from Sean Connery and Madonna to Kylie Jenner). There is no finer, more meticulously woven fiber in the world… And in Pile, coastal Ecuador, these handmade treasures can be as delicate as silk…
Photos: Juan Fernando Ricaurte
Plan your visit and/or buy handcrafted articles directly from the locals:
Graciela López (community manager): +593 99 127 1591
Paulina Ordóñez (Asopropile Hats president): +593 93 914 1405
Fausto López (community school head): +593 96 021 4302