Materials are undoubtedly as valuable as techniques and I carefully select the ones I work with. I feel compelled to use the best quality materials available. Materials imbued with ancestral knowledge passed through generations, like that of collecting the straw at the proper time of the year and weaving it as the elders did ; materials bound to the soil where they grew, from cotton plants to merino sheep. In this case, provenance is pivotal.
Felt, a composite of fibers consolidated by means of heat, humidity and pressure, is one of the earliest textiles known to man whose origins some scholars trace back to the Sumer civilization about 6000 years ago. Nowadays, whether it is wool or hair, the refined process of feltmaking comprises the careful cleaning of the fibers that are blown onto a cone shape which is then pressed and treated with heat and water until it shrinks and densifies, then it is dyed, blocked and sanded as desired. I work with some of the best felts available, in a carefully chosen color palette, with different weights and finishes (polished, velour, melusine). For fabric covered winter hats I work with merino wool felt. I also work with fine cashmere wool felt, a lustrous wild hare felt and beaver and mink felt. Beaver and mink hair felt are indisputably the best quality felt available. A great felt should be very dense and light, it should have an even thickness, a rich and homogenous color and feel soft and smooth to the touch, which is how these felts are : the densest, the lightest and the most resilient. Meaning that, being hand blocked only with steam (no stiffening agents), they will keep the shape and recover it whenever they lose it.
The straw I work with encompasses the finest kinds available. Some of them, like parabuntal straw, already extinct and others, like fine wheat straw braid or toquilla straw, struggling to survive, even after having been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The process of preparing toquilla straw is an extraordinary one that can take months of work of highly skilled artisans. It begins with carefully harvesting the stems of the palm tree, goes on with combing and selecting the right fibres, boiling and drying them, and then weaving, which can take from one day to six months of work, depending on the quality and finesse desired. An age old knowledge that has been transmitted from hand to hand and eye to eye for generations.
There is no standardized system for determining the quality of a good straw hat. Some sellers use « grades » to referring to the quality of a hat, other use terms such as « Fino » or « Super Fino » in a quite vague, imprecise and even ambiguous way. Whether it is a so called panama (from the Carludovica palmata), a parabuntal (from the Corypha umbraculifera) or a tuscan (from wheat instead of palm, Pontedera’s being one of the finest and more suitable wheat for hat making) that you are thinking of, the more honest and accurate way of determining the quality of a straw hat is what Brent Black (who happens to be the more reliable seller of Panama hats I know), calls « la cuenta ». « La cuenta » is nothing else than the number of rows of weave in one square inch, which results from counting the number of vertical and horizontal rows and multiplying them. A hat under 300 is nothing special ; a hat from 300 to 900 is a noteworthy hat ; and a hat over 900 is a rare treasure (not few of Mr. Black hats count over 2000). But it is not all about the fineness of the weaving. The quality of the weave (which encompasses the homogeneity of the straws selected for being weaved and the evenness of the resulting weaving) should also be taken into account when choosing a straw hat.
I take pride in the straw I use and feel privileged to have the opportunity to work with some quite remarkable labors of love that took months to weave, some of them decades ago. Exceptionally woven straws, like parabuntals that can easily count over 950.
I am committed to using the finest cloth, whether is wool, cotton or silk, observing the quality of its composition as well as its provenance and manufacture. This means buying from small producers and businesses who’s sourcing and manufacturing process are traceable and transparent; who buy their raw materials and manufacture their textiles where those materials grow and live (India, Spain, Scotland, Nepal) following age old traditions and giving credit to the extraordinary artisans that weave that cloth, like Kavita Parmar's The IOU Project does and with whom I am proud of collaborating regularly.
I am convinced that if luxury means uniqueness and refinement, it also means environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. It means handmade with love and respect. And this is how I make hats.