The first Suaza hat is believed to have been woven centuries ago, using indigenous knowledge on local plants and weaving. In December 2015, families from three rural municipalities were awarded a denomination of origin, acknowledging the traditional skills and the high quality hats. Ana is committed to continue and promote this tradition she has learned from her women elders.
INTERVIEW – may 2016
How did you start weaving hats?
It came from my family. My ancestors were weaving. My grandmother transmitted a lot to my mother, she taught her all. And then we were born, and my mother transmitted the knowledge on to us. I have been weaving since I was 7. Since I was a child I have been learning this art. It is a family tradition.
My grandfather was transporting the woven hats on mules to sell them, when there was no road here. He would do the finish of the hats, hammering them to give them the shape, and then he would take care of commercialization. He told us all this. He said he started when he was 15.
I love doing this. And so I just keep weaving!
At least since the time of my great-grandmother, my family has been weaving. And the tradition comes from much more time before then. My mother is 87, and my grandmother died when she was 90, and she kept weaving until her death. It is a very old art.
How much time do you need to make one hat?
It depends on the size. A small hat, in the gardel style, takes twenty days to make, working eight hours a day, with thin fiber like the one I use. If the fiber is a little thicker, it takes eighteen days. While thin fiber is better, it takes more time to weave, and therefore for the same size of hat it takes more time to complete.
How is this tradition being transmitted to new generations?
The problem of this art craft is that you are not sure when you will sell. There is no stable commercialization. Therefore, the youths are not motivated to learn it. They look for an activity that has more selling opportunities. That’s why the younger generations don’t weave much. Weaving takes time, and we would need a stable system of sales to be able to continue. Therefore the youths study other subjects and they start a career in another field.
But it hurts me a lot to see this, because this is a beautiful tradition. I am very sad that it is coming to an end. I taught my nieces; they had to learn! They would come here during their vacations, and they would practice weaving with me. And still today, some of my nieces come here during their vacations and they make their own hats, and they use the material.
If there was stable commercialization, I think we would be a successful family! But this hasn’t happened yet.
People buy hats, from time to time. But people here make a living on farming, especially on growing coffee. And for example this year the crops were small, the summer hasn’t been good and the beans have suffered a lot. We have been five months without seeing any rain. Therefore the prices dropped, and people in the area now don’t have money. So they’re not going to buy me anything! And I think it is the same in all Colombia. My sales depend on the economic situation of the area.
How do yours hats get sold?
Retailers come here to buy them and sell them at celebrations. My brother does that: he goes and sells them at village festivities.
How many people are hat weavers in the area?
I believe about a hundred people weave in the region. All women. There are a few villages were this tradition was transmitted around here.
The weaving is a women’s job, and the finish, which implies hammering the hat, is a men’s work. I can do it too, but it is more their job!
Hats from this area now receive an official quality stamp. Why is this area especially recognized?
It is a recent initiative. We received the “denomination of origin” last December when we participated in the craftsmanship festival in Bogota. The hats from the Huila department were recognized for their high quality. This was implemented to promote Colombian craftsmanship. So the stamp says “Suaza hat”, from the Suaza valley and river. It includes three municipalities. It means that these three municipalities are places where people have continued this tradition since old times, since before our great-grandparents.
Our ancestors had the idea to make these hats during indigenous times. At this time there was much knowledge. One needs much knowledge to be able to produce such a thing, look how beautiful it is! This tradition is part of our identity. It makes who we are.
That’s why it is important to protect this beautiful art. We would like to explore commercialization abroad in order to save it. Now that we have the denomination of origin, it would be easier to export the hats.
What is hat weaving to you?
Well, really it is a source of sadness to me, because I see that a craftsmanship is dying. In this area, it is our heritage. I insist a lot toward my family and the youths especially, I tell them “learn”! They can study others things too, but they should at least know this art. If they know it, even if they have another activity, they can continue making hats. And, anything you learn never gets lost. One day, it will prove useful. They tell me, “why learning”? But it’s wrong; it is always good to learn new things. Maybe one day it will occur to them that they want to weave. I always told my family, “let’s learn a little bit of everything”.
My dear father used to say that one shouldn’t ever let traditions die. We should welcome innovations, but never let old things die. For example, it is good that electricity arrived here, we can have light, but if we gave up on candles how would we now light our houses when there are power cuts? And so my dad would say, we have to keep learning these things like weaving, because you never know when you will need them. And he was right.
Therefore, it is necessary to learn a bit of everything in life. And I also insist with my family that they learn to do from the beginning to the end. They have to learn it all: from the process of producing the material, all the way to the finish of the hat.
What makes that the Suaza hats are of better quality?
Because the weaving is much thinner. Water won’t come through the hat. And also, it is all hand-made. No machinery gets ever involved in the process. And the result is much better. Today, machines are used for everything, everywhere. Machines have replaced people in the weaving and in the finish of the hats. But I can see that these machine-made hats are not perfect. The weaving and the shape don’t stay good. Hand-made hammering gives much better results. When I touch hats that were finished by machine, I can feel they’ve lost all their value. People use it to reduce the amount of work, but actually the hats that really are of high quality are the ones like mine.
It is the same in agriculture. Now people want to make everything faster. They use chemicals and that’s it! They’ve created artificial products for every stage of production, for the seed, for the planting, for the maturation… everything is accelerated. But actually, this is harming our health. And now people get sick because they eat “accelerated” products. We should follow nature more.
Therefore, too much innovation sometimes can harm us. We should rather take the time needed to make things well.
Hand-made products take more time, that’s for sure. And because machines are used for everything, and they make products faster, it is also bad for employment. We should be using our hands, our hands! That really is a matter of employment too.
Before, life was like this. One would value the work, because everything was hand-made.
PORTFOLIO – WEAVING