The Pintao Hat of Panama – The Story of a Dying Cultural Heritage

You’ve undoubtedly seen the Panama hat even if you don’t know what it is. They’re white hats that look like the Mexican fedora worn by gangsters, and are most commonly seen on cigar smoking, pencil-mustachioed men dressed in white silk suits with gold pocket chains and satin handkerchiefs. 

You get the picture.

However, this post is not about those hats. Heck, those don’t even originate in Panama. They are actually Ecuadorian hats that are mistakenly called Panama hats because gold prospectors heading off to California during the Gold Rush bought them from Panama. 

The traditional hat of Panama is called the Pintao hat or the sombrero pintada, and is a much more intricately woven affair. It is in fact so complex and finely woven,  that UNESCO declared it an endangered intangible heritage in need of protection in 2017.

So what’s so special about the Pintao hat?

The sombrero pintada is no ordinary hat.

For one, the art of making the hat is known only to a few hundred artisans in the hilly La Pintada district of Panama ( whence comes the name sombrero pintada).

Second, the process of making the Pintao hat is long and painstaking. Five types of plant fibres are carefully selected, dyed with natural dye, mixed with a little mud, woven, and braided into patterns and then made into a Pintao hat. The whole process is done by hand  and can take up 2 weeks.

Each of the five types of plant fibres used for making Pintao hats plays a crucial role in the lives of rural Panamanians, and together they represent a sample of the ecological heritage of Panama. These five types of fibres (plus another one used for making the dye) are:

Carludovica Palmata or Bellota – C. Palmata is a palm-like plant that is the main component of the Pintao hat. It grows all over Central America, as far south as Bolivia. The fibres of the plant are bleached white by boiling them in water and hanging them out to dry for 8 days. This  gives the Pintao hat its distinctive white color.

Astrocaryum Standleyanum or Chonta – A. Standleyanum is a fruit bearing plant that is  relatively difficult to encounter. Not as widespread as the Palmata, the Standleyanum plays a decorative role in the making of the Pinato hat. After being dyed black, it is used for the slim black lining that goes around and over the white top of the hat. 

The extraction of the fibre from the leaves of the Standleyanum plant is a delicate, pain-staking and time-consuming process. First, the leaves of the plant are collected and soaked in water for several days. Then the middle-vein or the mid-rib of the leaf is removed, and the fibre that is left behind is boiled with another plant Chisna ( see below) until they turn a deep red. They are then buried in swamp mud and left for several days. When removed, they are a jet black in color that offsets the brilliant white of the C. Palmata perfectly. 

Furcraea Cabuya or Cabuya – The Cabuya is a plant that looks like a succulent, with straight, strong leaves erupting out of the ground as if erupting. The fibres of the plant are strong and are used for making ropes. It is used for stitching the Pintao hat together. 

Aechmea Magdalenae or Pita – A. Magdalene, also called Pita or Ixtle is flowering plant with a bright red flower that has medicinal properties. It is used to heal wounds. In the making of the Pintao hat, it is used as another stitching medium to hold the fibres together. 

Cyperus spp. or ‘Junco’ – The Cyperus spp or Junco is another rare plant which is used for making an ornate stripe called the Tarco. The Tarco is different from the black stripe made using the A.Standleyanum, and artisans may deploy a number of patterns in making the tarco, leaving the imprint of their creativity. The number and  style of tarco is usually what distinguishes one Pintao hat from another. 

Arrabidaea Chica or Chisna – A. Chica is a medicinal vine native to south and central America that is used in traditional medicine. It is also used for making dyes. The black linings and the tarco patterns of the Pintao hat get their black color from the leaves of the A.chica which are crushed and boiled to produce the dye. 

Making of the Pintao Hat

Once all the raw material  has been collected, the process of making a Pintao hat begins. First the fibres from the leaves of C. Palmata are harvested. Old timers insist that the Palmata leaves must be harvested only under a full moon as this yields the best quality fibre. They are then boiled and dried for 8 days to render them white in color. The whiter the fibre, the more valuable the sombrero pintada. 

Next the fibre is woven into braids called vueltas. More the vueltas in a Pintao hat, the finer it is considered. The finest quality Pintao hats have upto 21 vueltas.However, the process of braiding is time consuming and taxing on the body, and producing hats with more vueltas is very hard labor.

The braided fibre is then sewn together using F. Cabuya or A. Magdalenae. At this point, the main structure of the Pintao hat is ready. Next, the ornamentation of adding the black lining and the tarcos is done using A. Standleyanum and Cyperus supp. 

Finally, any strands of fibre that stick out need to be trimmed and cut to give the hat a refined, finished look.

The whole process of producing a good Pintao hat can take up to 10 days. Hats with a higher vuelta count may take even longer. 

Challenges in the Making of the Pintao Hat

The first and foremost challenge that artisans face in making the Pintao hat is gathering the raw material. The availability of many of the plants needed for making the hat is increasingly becoming scarcer, while others are cultivated commercially, and need to be purchased by the artisans. 

A second challenge is the scarcity of skilled artisans. Pintao hat weaving is a pain-staking process requiring a variety of skills – from selecting and harvesting the right leaves to extracting and processing the fibre to finally weaving the hat. Not many among the new generation are interested in investing the time and effort in learning the skill.

Today there are only about 400 artisans in the remote, hilly district of La Pintada in Panama engaged in the making of Pintao hats. The UNESCO recognition in 2017 came as a shot in the arm for the dying Pintao hat weaving industry. 

Where Can I Buy a Pintao Hat From?

A good quality, finely woven Pinato hat is a true collector’s item, and like all things fine, is not easy to come across. While Panama hats can be found aplenty, there aren’t many places on the internet where you can find a good sombrero pintada.

The Panama Store is one of the few online marketplaces selling good quality Pintao hats. Make sure to drop by and check out their Pintao hat. In so doing, you also support an artisan in preserving a dying craft. 

References: Sam Clair (2016) Ethnobotany, Economics, and Cultural Significance of Traditional Hat Making  In Two Districts of Central Panama

Featured image courtesy: Dimas Ruiz


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