SUGAR and spice and numerous other things nice thrive in the opulent isle of Porto Rico. The land is so fertile that all sorts of tropic growths abound. But down in the southwest there is a strip of coast where nature seems to have run out of rich soil – as though she had miscalculated the supply and spent too prodigally elsewhere. Even the rain clouds hurry over this arid strip and leave it parched beneath a blinding sun. Only palms flourish here – cocoanut palms, which are never demanding in the way of roothold, and another sort of palm tree that grows, not fruit, but hats. And very excellent hats they are. Quite as good, in expert opinion, as those that come from the Isthmus of Panama.
PALM HATS IN THE MAKING
The hat palm, which grows wild in great abundance, is about eight feet tall and has broad fanlike leaves. Young leaves, fine in texture and almost white when dried, are selected for the best hats. Cut when green, they are spread to dry and bleach, as linen is laid in the sun. Two dried leaves, costing the weavers about $1.50, are enough to make one hat of first-class workmanship. The material for cheaper hats, which are made from coarse cream-colored leaves, costs twenty to twenty-five cents each.
Women and children do the weaving. Early in the morning, as soon as the housewife has tidied up her palm-thatched and palm-wainscoted cabin, she sits down in her palm-shaded front yard and begins to plait the narrow lengths. If she plans to do a fine hat, she draws from the bundle a handful of strips no more than a sixteenth of an inch wide. The narrower the strip the longer the weaving process. As she forms the germ of the hat – the disk in the center of the crown – and proceeds in slowly widening circles, she creates a shower of delicate fibrous ribbons, and these her supple fingers thread in and out to form crown and brim.
About sixty days' labor goes into the making of a first-quality hat. Only half this time would be necessary except for a curious fact. The leaves chosen for the finest work must be soft, so the slender strips will not crack and break. These, spread out on' the ground, are pliable only in the morning, when they are still damp from the dew. Practical everyday hats, made of coarse strips, can be finished in two or three days, and sell to the dealer's agent for less than a dollar. A sixty-day hat may bring $30 or $40. The coarser woven hats of deep-cream tint often give the best wear, because they are less liable to crack.
A TRAINING CLASS IN HAT WEAVING
The weavers dispose of their wares at their own doorstep. The product of the primitive community is then taken to Mayaguez, the finishing and distributing center for this lively Porto Rican industry. The chief village of the sombrero weavers is Joyuda, and "Joyuda hats" are renowned throughout the island. In foreign markets they usually sell as "Panamas"; American purchasers seldom know that their prized headgear is fashioned by dusky fingers in the palmy isle of Porto Rico.