Listen to a report about Brent’s efforts to improve life for the weavers in Ecuador.
Anchor: Some of the finest straw hats in the world come from Ecuador. The best sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Most of that money goes to hat dealers and retail stores. The weavers themselves barely survive on the money they make. One American businessman is trying to change that equation. Mary Stucky reports from the central coast of Ecuador.
Mary Stucky: The sun has gone down in the dry dusty village of Pile. The villagers here are settling in for the night. But work has just begun for Simón Espinal.
Simón Espinal: (speaking spanish)
Translator: All my life, I’ve liked this job of weaving hats. And I pray to God to give me the good eyes I need to do this job well.
Stucky: Espinal works in the bedroom of his house. He stands hunched over at almost a ninety degree angle. His chest rests on a block of wood. He reaches down below that and starts to work on a hat he’s weaving around a circular block. This is the traditional position for weaving. And it leaves Espinal’s neck and shoulders in pain. The thirty-nine year old weaves at night when it’s cooler. That’s because a single drop of sweat can ruin a hat. The process can be nerve-wracking.
Espinal: (speaking spanish)
Translator: When I start a hat, I’m thinking, “When am I going to finish?” When I finish the hat, I’m proud but very worried while I’m weaving.
Stucky: It takes three months of this pain-staking labor to make a single hat. But, oh, what a hat! The strands of straw are so fine and are woven so tightly it appears to be made not of straw but of linen. They’re called ‘Panama hats’ because they were worn by workers who built the Panama Canal. The finest sell for mind-boggling thousands of dollars. But the weavers themselves usually make less than two thousand dollars a year. Even Simón Espinal, who is considered one of the finest weavers alive, even he has thought about leaving Ecuador in search of work.
Espinal: (speaking spanish)
Translator: I have thought of it. But then I think of my family and my children left behind in Ecuador and growing up without a father.
Stucky: But now there may be a way to keep Simón Espinal home with his family, thanks to a retired advertising executive from Hawaii. Brent Black discovered Panama hats twenty years ago when he came to Ecuador on vacation. Black was amazed by the hats he saw. And he saw something else: a business opportunity that would mean some money for him and also for the weavers. He became a man on a mission.
Brent Black: I think it’s critically important that these people will have a quality of life that allows them to do their art…would help if he’s not totally consumed by hunger or something.
Stucky: Black wanted to sell more hats at higher prices and, at the same time, pay the hat makers an equitable cut of the sale price.
Black: That’s part of what I’m trying to do is to get people in the buying market to understand the value of the hats so that the retail prices can more closely approximate what they should be in order to generate enough for the guys who are making them.
Stucky: So Black brought high-tech marketing to this low-tech craft. Black developed a Web site to sell the hats.
Black: Now we go to the ironing…this is a Simón hat and when he’s cutting off the excess straw, he gathers it, bundles it, and saves it. That way, it…
Stucky: The Web site features beautiful photos of the hat-making process. It begins with trekking into the rain forest to cut the palm fibers that make up the hat. After the hat is woven, there’s still work to be done. In fact, it has to be ironed. The men who do that are called Planchedors. And the late Nestor Franco was revered as one of the best. Black clicks to a photo of Franco who ironed the hats until they were as smooth as silk.
Black: You can see the old iron heating in the coals. Nestor would build his fire first thing in the morning.
Stucky: The hats on the Web site cost from about four hundred dollars to more than ten thousand depending on the fineness of the weave. A weaver can make up to forty percent of that price once the hat sells. Black says one weaver received a check for a single hat that was equal to what he used to earn in an entire year. Black ships to buyers all over the world. He just sent a hat to the actor Peter O’Toole. But all this may not be enough to save the craft. Some say it’s too late; that there aren’t enough fine weavers left because so many have emigrated in search of better paying jobs. Others say there aren’t enough people willing to pay such high prices for hats. But for the several hundred weavers Black works with, life is getting better. Simón Espinal is one of them. He says that before he went to work for Brent Black, he sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.
Espinal: (speaking spanish)
Translator: Now I have a house, a refrigerator, tables. And I pray to God to keep Brent alive and with good health so he can keep helping me this way.
Stucky: Espinal says if Brent Black can keep selling enough of his super fine Panama hats, he’ll keep making them. He’ll stay in Pile with his family, bending over, patiently weaving straw into tight tiny rows after the sun goes down. For the World Vision Report, I’m Mary Stucky in Pile, Ecuador.
Anchor: This story was produced with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. You can see photos of the weavers and their hats at our Web site, worldvisionreport.org.