The traditional toquilla straw weaving of Ecuador since December 5, 2012 is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it expresses the ancient and ancestral culture of Ecuador, a country that loves life.
The toquilla straw fiber comes from the “Carludovica Palmata” palm that grows in the coastal region of our country. Although this species is also found in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, it is only in Ecuador where the use of its fiber became an important source of income for many families, thus developing an important export industry.
In the book “El tejido tradicional de paja toquilla, Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial de la Humanidad” (INPC, 2012, p.9), it is noted that in 1534, Father José María Cobos, who accompanied Sebastián de Benalcázar on his voyage of conquest, observed in his passage through the territories that today correspond to the province of Manabí, natives using a kind of bat-brimmed hats with which they protected themselves from the sun.
The use of the toquilla straw continued during the colony by the skilled artisans of Manabí, who inherited from their ancestors the knowledge and ability to weave different types of garments, including the traditional Spanish “tocas” (hence the name paja toquilla).
In fact, important artisan weaving centers have developed in this province, such as Jipijapa and Montecristi. Since 1835, the weaving of toquilla straw hats spread to the provinces of Azuay and Cañar, as an alternative to overcome the deep economic crisis in which some sectors were plunged. Soon this activity took off in the region, becoming an important export product in 1849.
The farmers of the coast cultivate the toquillales and collect the stems in order to separate the fiber from the green bark, boiling the latter to eliminate the chlorophyll and then drying it with charcoal and sulfur to whiten it. With this raw material, the weavers begin the weaving of the hat’s crown and brim. The weaving of a hat can last from one day to eight months, depending on its quality and fineness. In the coastal community of Pile, weavers make extra fine hats that require specific climatic conditions and an exact number of stitches in each row of the fabric. Finally, the hat is washed and bleached before ironing and baking. The weavers are mostly peasant families and weaving techniques are passed on to children at home, through observation and imitation, from a very early age. The techniques and knowledge encompass a complex and dynamic social fabric that includes, among other elements, traditional cultivation and production techniques, diverse forms of social organization and the use of the hat as part of daily and festive clothing. For the communities that perpetuate it, this craft tradition is a distinctive feature of their identity and a component of their cultural heritage.
The origin of toquilla straw hat weaving is located in the province of Manabí. In 1630, the indigenous Domingo Choéz combined this raw material, which is grown mostly in the current province of Santa Elena, with the shape of Spanish hats. The weavers of Montecristi and Jipijapa specialized in the elaboration of hats under the European model. In the 19th century, this activity attracted the interest of the Ecuadorian Austro. The provinces of Azuay and Cañar were the protagonists of what became known as the “toquillero boom”.
According to history, the hat export boom generated a period of unprecedented economic bonanza. In 1854 the export of toquilla straw hats surpassed cocoa; by 1863, 500,000 hats were exported from the Port of Guayaquil. Europe and the United States began to demand this product, which was promoted at the World Exposition in Paris in 1855. However, the construction of the Panama Canal generated a great demand for this product, initially used by workers to protect themselves from the sun; later, important political and show business figures began to wear toquilla straw hats, becoming a very popular fashion accessory.
The weaving of toquilla straw for the production of hats and multiple handicrafts such as ornaments, baskets, bags, purses and others, is one of the most traditional activities in Azuay and Cañar and one of the most interesting tourist attractions for visitors to these provinces.
The toquilla straw hat is recognized worldwide as a high quality product and has become synonymous with elegance and distinction. It is currently exported to countries in America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania, where the finest hats can be sold at prices exceeding thousands of dollars.
If you want to learn more or wear this distinguished garment of Ecuadorian seal we recommend visiting the towns of Pile, Montecristi or Barcelona, on the Ecuadorian coast; or visit the cantons of Azogues, Biblian, Cuenca or Sígsig in the Andes.
With the recognition of the “Traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat” as Intangible Heritage of Humanity, it is expected to make visible the meaning and socio-cultural function of the intangible heritage that is expressed in a set of traditional knowledge, practices and techniques, overcoming the monumentalist vision of heritage and the conservationist approach of craftsmanship as an object. This implies an action of vindication of the communities involved and the enhancement of their self-esteem, as well as their commitment to continue with the transmission of knowledge.