BBC EL MUNDO

Interview

1) 1) When did you arrive for the first time to Ecuador?

1988.

In 1987, I read a book, a travel essay about Panama hat production in Ecuador. (The Panama Hat Trail, by Tom Miller) There were a couple of chapters about Montecristi. Reading the high praise for Montecristi hats caused me to want see some. The book had a prediction that the art of Montecristi hats would be dead in less than twenty years. I decided to go to Montecristi to see the hats before they were gone. It seemed like it would a fun adventure. It was.

I went to Montecristi in search of Sr. Rosendo Delgado Garay, a dealer mentioned in the book. I found him. I saw, felt, held, and even smelled my first Montecristi hats. I did not taste them. (I can honestly say I have never licked a Montecristi hat.) They were worth the 11,000-mile trip. I touched the hats, and the hats touched my heart. I fell in love with Montecristi hats.

A hat dealer in Guayaquil had predicted that the art of Montecrisit hats would be dead in twenty years. I decided to make it my mission to prevent his prediction from coming true. Many have said I succeeded, that without my naïve and Quixotic efforts the prediction would have come true. I enjoy the irony that the prediction itself made the prediction not come true.

But it is obvious the art is not saved. It is merely on life support. I’m happy the life of the art has been extended, but I fear extinction is still likely. Why? Simple math.

A reasonable goal to keep the art alive is to make sure the weavers can receive at least minimum wage in Ecuador, which I understand to be $354/month times 14 months. So about $5000 per year. Next, calculate how many hats per year a weaver can produce. Simón can weave only two hats per year, but he is a special case. Let’s look at weavers of more commercial grades of Montecristi hats. Consider a hat with a weave count of 20 per one inch, or 20x20 per square inch. This hat will require about 3 weeks to weave in Las Pampas, about 5 weeks to weave in Pile.

So the weaver in Las Pampas can weave about 16 hats per year. In order to earn minimum wage, the weaver would have to earn $312.5 per hat. They earn about one-third of that amount. For weavers to earn minimum wage, prices paid to weavers would have to triple. If prices paid to weavers triple then retail prices will AT LEAST triple. If retail prices for hats with a weave of 20/inch triple, no one will buy them.

2) I know you visited Montecristi and Cuenca in your trips, but I am really curious about how did you end up in Pile, this little little town?

For me, the search for the very best weavers, the very finest Montecristi hats, has been like a quest for the Holy Grail. More often than not, the Monty Python version.

I touched my first Montecristi hat in 1988. I felt the thinness between my fingers, weighed it in my palms, held it up to the sun to see the concentric rings in the glowing crown, examined it closely all over admiring the weave texture. I did the same with several dozen other hats, one at a time, until I reached the bottom of the stack. Then I asked, meekly and respectfully, “May I have some more, sir? Finer than those?”

I had fallen in love with Montecristi hats.

As with anyone who becomes enthralled by a subject, I wanted to learn everything I could about Montecristi hats. I begged to be allowed to see all the stages of preparing straw and weaving Montecristi hats, all the stages of the artisan finishing. Don Rosendo Delgado was my mentor, my “father” in Montecristi hats. He was always kind and patient, always generous with his knowledge. He knew my Spanish was almost nonexistent, so he would point to to the pickup truck and I would climb into the back, having no clue where we might be going. Sometimes he took me to a weaver’s house so I could see and photograph the weaving process. Sometimes he took me to a rematadora’s house so I could see how the back weave is done. Sometimes he took me to watch an artisan do his work. Once he took me to a funeral.

Being interested in the finest examples of the art of Montecristi, it was natural for me to be interested in the finest artists of Montecristi, the best weavers. So Don Rosendo took me to Pile. And there I fell in love, not just with the hats, but with the people who weave them.

The weavers of Pile weave the very finest Montecristi hats, as they have for generations. As it became my mission to try to keep alive the art of fine hat weaving, it became my mission to try to make fine hat weaving a more desirable occupation.

I have tried, in my own small way, to help improve quality of life for weavers in Pile. I am just a tiny one-person business, and not even a very profitable one, but it is better to do just a little than to do nothing at all. So, when possible, my business and foundation have brought a little bit of free medical care to Pile, free eye exams and glasses, a town party many years ago, free respirators to protect weavers from sulfur fumes when they bleach the straw (I would be seriously surprised if any weavers use them), higher hat prices paid to weavers, unprecedented commissions to weavers when the finest hats are sold, and a weaving school.

This year, The Montecristi Foundation, Inc. will launch a new program to certify as Master Weavers the weavers of the finest hats. We will launch the program with 3 different levels. Maestro Tejedor Certificado recognizes weavers who can weave hats with weave counts of 30x30 and higher. Maestro Tejedor Superior recognizes weavers who can weave hats 40x40 and higher. Maestro Tejedor Cumbre recognizes weavers who can weave hats 50x50 and higher. At present, only Simón will be awarded Maestro Tejedor Cumbre. Master Weavers will receive framed certificates similar to university diplomas. I will send you a photo of the prototype when it is completed later this week.

The program will have two primary goals.

First, it is important to give respect and recognition to the weavers for being the creators of the finest examples of an art recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World. Even when UNESCO awarded the designation in 2012, no one gave any recognition to the weavers themselves. Lots of media stories about the hats of Ecuador, but no cash awards or ticker tape parades for weavers. I expect they would prefer cash awards and ticker tape parades, but being recognized as Master Weavers is a beginning.

Second, it is hoped that having the official designation of Maestro Tejedor will help the weavers to sell their hats more easily and for higher prices.

I am working on the text for the certificates and the design. I leave for Montecrsti on Sunday. I hope to take with me the first certificates. Patricia will receive Maestro Tejedor Certificado. Fausto, the other teacher, and Manuel, Fausto’s brother and Patricia’s husband, will receive Maestro Tejedor Superior. Simón will receive Maestro Tejedor Cumbre. Other weavers will receive certificates as soon as I can make them.

i also hope to work with Manuel and Patricia to create a straw-making operation to ensure that the weavers can receive excellent quality straw to use to weave their hats. Weavers now pay about $30 to $40 for enough straw to weave a hat. If I can provide the straw at no charge, then I will be increasing the income of the weavers by reducing their expenses. Also, wears do not have much money, so they often cannot buy all at once the straw needed to weave a hat. They have to buy half at the beginning and the other half later. But that means the second time they get straw, it was not made from the same plants and at the same time as the first straw they bought. So the straw is likely to be a little different in color sand other factors. It is ether if all the straw in a hat is made at the same time.

3) People in Pile say that in this town are the most and the best weavers in Ecuador, not in Montecristi, not in Jipijapa, not in Las Pampas. You now the whole area really well. Do you agree with this appreciation of the Pile inhabitants?

It is wonderful that they are expressing pride in their art and their village. I do not know if there are more weavers in Pile than in Las Pampas. I would have thought there are more in Las Pampas. I doubt there are any weavers at all in the city of Montecristi. Jipijapa? Are there still weavers in Jipijapa? In the 19th century, Jipijapa rivaled Montecristi as a center for hat production, but I am not sure if there is still any significant production there. It would be great to revive interest, and production. Did you know that Panama hats produced in Mexico (Yucatan) are not called Panama hats? They are called Jipijapas. There are weavers in El Aromo ad San Lorenzo. Semi-calados are woven in Aguas Nuevas.

4) In your own words, from your heart, why do you think it was necessary to teach young people of Pile the art of weaving "sombreros finos y superfinos"?

My mission has been to try to keep alive the art of Montecristi. To me, the highest expression of the art is in the very finest hats, hats that are so finely woven as to seem impossible. Those hats are woven in Pile. If I hope for there to be finely woven hats ten years, or fifty years, from now, the the logical place for them to be woven is Pile.

The weavers of Pile have created the very finest hats for generations. Weaving the very finest hats is the tradition, the inheritance, perhaps even the DNA of Pile. Young people in Pile are aware of the tradition. Some take pride in it. Many have family members who weave fine hats. They have seen these miracles. They know what they are. It seems to me that there is more hope for success in a new generation learning to weave the finest hats in Pile, where they already have the tradition, than there would be in attracting a new generation to learn to create this almost impossible art in a village where they do not already have a tradition of fine hat weaving. Pile has more than a hundred years of momentum. It is hoped that the families of Pile will be supportive of the idea of their children becoming fine weavers. We see families in which being a physician, or a policeman, or a wine maker is a family tradition, passed from generation to generation. In Pile, the there are many families with a family tradition of being weavers. Simón is the best weaver in Pile (and therefore in the world). His father was also was known to be one of the best weavers in a village of exceptional weavers. Simón’s children have demonstrated exceptional skills. Perhaps there is a genetic component of why the finest hats are woven in Pile.

If you wish to train a new generation of great boat builders, you would have more chance of success in a coastal town than in a desert town. If you want to keep a tradition alive, it makes more sense to focus one’s efforts where the tradition already exists.

I have done my best to bring media recognition, and a measure of fame, to Simón. His economic success, as a consequence of his weaving skill, is obvious to other weavers. I hope that other weavers will see Simón's success and it will inspire them to work to be as good, to achieve similar recognition and respect, to earn similar income from weaving. “If he can do it, I can do it.”

The weaving school in Pile provides an opportunity to the kids who see Simón’s success to learn to weave themselves, possibly to become the next Simón, the next truly great weaver. I hope Simón will be their Pele, their Maradona, their hero. And to equal or surpass Simón's success will become their goal.

There is another weaving school in Pile. That school was overseen and guided for the first few years by a consultant in Quito. She was quoted to me as having said that the biggest problem with hat production in Pile is that the hats take too long to weave, and that it was her goal, and the goal of the school, to speed up hat weaving in Pile. Really? If true, that is truly alarming. The obvious way to speed up the weaving process is to weave hats with less fine straw. I know of no other way. If the goal of the other school is to teach weavers to weave with less fine straw, to weave hats that are less finely woven, then the goal of the other school is to end Pile’s tradition of weaving the very finest hats. Surely she was misquoted.

The goal of Escuela Alma de Paja Toquilla is to continue the tradition of Pile, the tradition of weaving the most finely woven hats in the history of planet earth. Perhaps even to weave the most finely woven hats in the history of Pile, to surpass the achievements of previous generations of Pile weavers.

The challenge will be to create a market for those hats. To find buyers eager to own the finest examples of the art of Montecristi. And willing to pay prices commensurate with the time and talent required to weave such hats. In order for the art to survive, the artists must be appropriately compensated so that they will want to weave. So that they will want their children to weave.

It is true that Simón wove fewer hats each year, and now he weaves only 2 hats per year, and not always that many. His weaving did become finer in the beginning, but now his hats are not as finely woven, meaning the weave counts are lower. Of course, the incredible hat he wove in 2013, completed in February 2014, is the finest hat ever woven. But other hats have been about the same weave counts as hats woven by Manuel and Fausto. There are two hats Simón has woven in the past year that I have not seen. Perhaps they are as fine as earlier hats. I may have to lower the price of some of his hats. This is for background only, for you, and I do not think it is appropriate to report to the public.

Simón was already the best weaver in Pile when I first met him, referred by Don Rosendo. I did not make him the best weaver. I brought his talents to public attention and did my best to encourage him and to see that he is rewarded well.

The weavers of Pile are not a reliable source for retail market information. What do you, or they, mean by “great quality?” Yes, I would assume there are hats sold for $600 or $800 in Montecristi. I have paid higher prices for unblocked hats. Do you and they mean unblocked hats sold to dealers like me by dealers in Montecristi? To know the prices dealers in Montecristi sell hats for, you should talk to the dealers in Montecristi. You should also assume they might not tell you the truth.

I sold a Manuel hat this year for $12,500. The Manuel hat was about the same weave count as a Simón hat sold to the same buyer for $25,000. I am just now completing a Fausto hat for a client in Switzerland, and the price is $10,000. When I am in Pile soon, I will encourage both Manuel and Fausto to weave hats with weave counts above 50, if they can. I will encourage them to weave hats as fine as Simón’s, perhaps finer if Simón is relaxing his desire to be the best.

There were hats sold by other dealers for $20,000 to $30,000 before I ever sold a hat for such a high price.

There is a dealer in Chicago who has sold at least one hat for $20,000, and it was not a Simón hat. A dealer in Santa Fe has sold at least one hat for $30,000.

Charlie Sheen purchased a Simón hat in 2008 for $25,000. Simón received $10,000. $5000 was divided among the artisans who worked on the hat. I built a water project in Pile. And I commissioned Simón to weave the finest hat he had ever woven.

Photo of Charlie Sheen hat below

In 2009, a king purchased 21 hats, each priced between $10,000 and $25,000. The hats were gifts to 3 recipients. Netscape and WebMD founder, Jim Clark, purchased a hat for $13,000 that year. And an Italian CEO of a multi-national company purchased a Simón hat for $25,000 that year.

Photo of Italian CEO hat below

An attorney in the Houston area purchased two Simón hats some years ago.

There is a very, very small market for such hats. And you must remember that my hats are sold only by Internet. My hats are not in any retail stores anywhere in the world. So, someone who is buying such a hat from me is buying a hat he cannot see, feel, or try on. I am gratified to have created a website and to have earned a reputation that allows clients to have sufficient trust and confidence that they are willing to pay such high prices for a straw hat they cannot see, feel, or try on.

To the best of my knowledge, I am the only seller of very high priced Montecristi hats who has made any effort to see that the weavers receive a more equitable share of the retail market price of their hats. When I sell a hat woven by Fausto, Manuel, Simón, and other Master Weavers, I pay a substantial commission to the weaver, above and beyond the price I already paid to buy the hat.

This year, I have paid single-hat commissions of $3000, $4000, $7000, and expect to pay soon another commission of $3300. Manuel was recently offered $1500 for one of his hats. He declined the offer because he wanted his hat to be with me and to have a chance to win a good commission. I encouraged him to take the offer. We have a saying in English: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The cash price Manuel and I had already agreed to was lower than the offer. Yes, I might sell his hat and the commission would give him a much higher total price. But maybe something happens to the hat (sometimes, they suddenly get spots and discolored straw and are not worth top prices), or maybe I don’t ever find a buyer. My goal is to do my best to help the weavers. If they can sell a hat for more than I can pay, then I am happy for them to sell to someone else.

 
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