LA PINTADA, Panama – Cultural authorities at UNESCO have recognized the artisans of Panama for their distinctive woven hats. No, not those hats; the famed “Panama hat” comes from Ecuador.
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Panama’s real contribution to the world’s hat heritage is the pintao, or painted hat, handmade from five different plants and a dose of swamp mud.
Production of the circular-brimmed hats is still a family affair carried out on a household scale. The industry’s center is La Pintada, a district about 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Panama City.
“They don’t have anything (artificial), no machinery; no factory as such exists here in La Pintada,” said Reinaldo Quiros, a well-known artisan and designer who sells hats out of his home. “Each artisan in his own home makes the hats maintaining the techniques taught by his ancestors.”
The widely known “Panama hat” is a brimmed hat traditionally made in Ecuador from the straw of the South American toquilla palm plant. The hats are thought to have earned their misleading name because many were sold in nearby Panama to prospectors traveling through that country to California during the Gold Rush.
Artisans of the truly Panamanian pintao hat start with the fibers of several plants that are cured and then woven into braids that are wrapped around a wooden form and sewn together from the crown of the hat down.
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Pasion Gutierrez, 81, grows some of the plants around his house in El Jaguito outside La Pintada, while others are found high in the mountains. Gutierrez, his wife Anazaria and several of their children and grandchildren make pintaos. His eyesight doesn’t allow him to do the fine needlework anymore, but he harvests, prepares and braids the fibers.
On a recent day, Gutierrez said he’d gone out the night before to cut agave leaves because they believe the quality of the fibers is best when harvested under a full moon.
“It’s no good with a new moon,” he said.
Several bands of fiber are dyed black with the leaves from a different plant and then stuck in mud for three days. The fibers are woven into fine geometric designs and integrated into the hat giving it its name.
“The pintao hat has become an integral part of regional outfits throughout the country worn during traditional dances and community festivities,” the United Nations’ heritage arm’s statement said.
Depending on the quality of the work some pintao hats can cost hundreds of dollars. Authorities estimate that 4,000 of La Pintada’s 25,000 residents work creating or selling the hats.
Pedro Mendoza, a 50-year-old hat maker, hopes that the UNESCO recognition takes the pintao hat beyond the country’s borders.
“It’s really good what’s happened,” he said. “The hat for us is a way of life.”