Air Date: June 18, 2007 WMV version
(CBS News) Phil Keoghan, the host of the CBS reality series, “The Amazing Race,” uses his down time between races to do some global exploring of his own exclusively for The Early Show.
His most recent stop took him to Montecristi, Ecuador, one of the last great centers of Panama hat production.
Keoghan met up with Brent Black, a man who is helping to save the dying art of Panama hat weaving.
Black left a lucrative advertising career in the United States when he learned that few young people were entering the profession. He is trying to improve pay and working conditions for the weavers.
Phil decided to spend some time with Black to learn what it takes to weave these hats and to see if he could find the perfect Panama hat for himself.
Here’s Phil’s report:
This might be confusing, but Panama hats don’t come from Panama. They come from the destination of my latest trip: Montecristi, Ecuador. I met up with Brent Black, an American whose goal is to keep the Panama hat industry alive for generations to come.
In my quest for the perfect hat, I got to see the differences in quality. Brent’s hats are elegant and impossibly light, with a weave so fine, they’re like linen to touch.
His hats are plenty expensive, but I found out why. Brent took me to the dusty mountain town of Piles, home of one of the finest weavers in the world, Simón Espinal, a weaver who spends hours a day stooped over a bench, nimbly turning straw into gold.
Simón showed me a partially completed hat, and I asked him how long it took to get to that point.
“Dos meses,” he responded, or, in English, two months. Unfortunately, Simón is a dying breed, as there are only a handful of weavers like him left.
I was brought five miles into the jungle to explore the creation of a Panama hat. Weavers search for “Cogollos,” young shoots of a specific variety of palm.
“How many of these do you need to actually make a hat?” I asked.
Simón responded, “Three hundred.” Three hundred Cogollos shoots to make one hat.
To make the hat, Cogollos are cut gently with machetes and hand-carried back to town. There, the reeds are split by hand and foot. Only the choice center straws are harvested. They then get quickly blanched in boiling water for softening, and hung out to dry. Finally, sulfur smoke bleaches the straw overnight, and that is all before the first weave is even spun.
Months later, after the hat is formed, a “rematadora” executes a careful back weave to prevent unraveling. Once the straw is trimmed, an apaledor pounds the hat with hardwood mallets to keep the hat supple. They are ironed, trimmed, and blocked into their final shape.
Brent learned the art of Panama hat weaving himself.
“I understood why people love Panama hats. I understood why these hats were legendary,” Brent said.
Brent took me to the headquarters of the Montecristi Foundation, an organization he started that helps support weavers. It promotes them as artists and brings medical attention to the whole town.
We could barely conduct an interview because everyone around was thanking him.
Brent is a businessman, though, making a healthy living selling Panama hats. But he is intentionally increasing the base pay of weavers in an effort to improve their lives and attract new, young weavers.
“That’s the idea,” Brent said. “To keep going back and forth and keep raising (wages) as the market will bear until we get to the point where (weavers) make a really good wage.”
By the end of my trip, I got my Panama hat…and a newfound appreciation for the difference one man can make.
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