Before I get off the topic of Merida, Mexico adventures, I thought our readers would find this interesting.
Last year when we arrived in Merida, it became clear to Brion that a cap would not suffice in the 33 degree temperature. Our goal was to find a traditional ‘Jipijapa’ Panama hat. This is a soft, pliable hat made from the fibers of the jipijapa palm in several towns south of Merida.
Jipijapa requires a fair amount of water to grow to about 5-8 ft (1.5 – 2.5 m) tall. This evergreen is not a true palm. Each plant is a cluster of about 1-inch thick stalks topped by a dark umbrella-like leaf nearly 3 feet wide. Young leaves and shoot tips are edible and said to taste like asparagus. The plants need 2-3 years to mature before its youngest and most delicate light colored leaves can be harvested to make the famous white/cream hats. Older, tougher parts of the plants can be used to make brooms, mats, purses, baskets, small ornaments or earrings, ie. things that do not need the flexibility of hats.
Jilipapa is a Mexican version of the Ecuadorian ‘treasure’ called the panama hat. About the same time the hats were made famous in Ecuador, a priest introduced a wide variety of Guatemala palms to Becal, a village that is the center of the panama hat trade in Mexico.
The Mayas of the area quickly started weaving hats, the main difference was they were working in a much drier environment and had to devise a way to keep the fibers moist and cool. They started working in caves in their backyards. The cave environment allows the weavers to interlace the pattern more tightly without fear of tearing or cracking the ‘straw’. It also prevents sweat from the weavers’ hands to stain the fiber.
Hats can take anywhere from a couple of days to six months to make. To begin with, there is the picker of the young unopened palm leaves. The best strips are boiled, dried and whitened with a sulfur in a special ‘oven’. Next the brim’s edge is made by back weaving the straw. This prevents the hat from unraveling. It is then tightened. For some hats that takes 3 full circles around the hat, or finer work, 5 circles. This prevents the brim from puckering. The hat is then washed and bleached, then beaten with a special mallet or shell to soften its fibers. Now it is trimmed of any excess, ironed and blocked. The blocking process can take up to 2 weeks. Finally, a sweat band is stitched inside the hat and a decorative band applied on the outside.
Like most popular wardrobe staples, the demand for these hats has led to the industrialization of the hat making process. The process of hand weaving is a dying art that is worth appreciation. In 2012, it was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Although the price was a bit steep, you get what you pay for. After being worn on 2 holidays and packed in a suitcase to travel back and forth to Mexico, Brion’s hat still looks great.
I realize I got quite far removed from the food aspect of the blog. Who knew there was so much to know about the Jipijapa hat! These onion rings really kick up the basic burger a notch. Well worth a try!