El Sombrero -Learning the Art of Mexican Hat Making
Journey with a Oaxacan Master Hatter:
Armando Gomez Garcia
I love hats, I always have. I wonder if it’s a throw back to watching John Wayne movies with my father, wishing I was a cowboy? Maybe my skateboarding days and rocking flexfit caps? I can tell you that it’s definitely been with me since I was a kid. I can distinctly remember trips to the hairdresser and a grumpy lady stripping a well moulded hat from my pre-teen head as I reluctantly sat down. Once the torture was over and I was safely out of reach I’d put my cap straight back and give her a cheeky smile while ducking from my mother’s slap.
I’m now in my thirties and while exploring the world I’m forever on the hunt for a new hat. We’re currently based in Oaxaca Mexico, home to many “vaquero’s” y Granjero’s (cowboy’s + farmers). Their hats are perfectly haggard, the sort that only love and abuse can shape. I often catch myself ogling them in the street, in awe of these perfectly weathered hats with heavy pinch marks that can not be replicated – these are the real deal, a sign of hard work and grit.
That’s kinda how I met Armando. Deep in the heart of ‘Mercado 20 de Noviembre’, passing by the indigenous ladies encouraging me to try Chapulines (edible insects), El passio de humo (BBQ stalls) & vendors selling a million chilli varieties and I spotted a wall. Full of sombreros and a handsome man, looking rather cowboy like as he sat cross legged on a old timber stool.
Armando is a third-generation hat maker from Oaxaca. His amber speckled eyes instantly reveal his honest and warm-hearted nature, while his weathered hands speak of his dedication to his inherited craft.
After I fondle a few hats and spark up a conversation, he eagerly lets me know that he makes hats using both rabbit and beaver felt. My ears perk up: these materials last a lifetime, it’s exactly what I want.
Emotionally I have already committed to making one (maybe two, hmm the blue is nice too though, maybe three.), but of course I have to play the traditional cat and mouse game of buyer and seller, pretending momentarily that I could walk away if I wanted to……
I tell him I’ll bring him some designs in a few days and we can go from there. He seems excited by the challenge. Over a week or so I refine my design and arrange to meet him at his house to watch the magic happen as he makes a sample.
Armando lives in a small barrio fifteen minute bus ride from the centre of town. I arrive late, it’s around 8pm. It’s dark and the dogs have just started to take over the streets. Armando doesn’t mentioned my tardiness and we work our way through his house dodging kittens, rubber tyres and the remnants of years of hat making.
His workshop is dark and dusty; there are piles of unmade hats and machinery from the turn of the century. Even today, he is using molds and tools from the early 1900’s . My romantic heart flutters as he shows me a hat his grandfather gave him.
I spend a couple of hours with him, his wife, son and kittens. I learn about the process of stretching the felt, pouncing and shaping. He is working under the light from his wife’s smart phone as she searches for pictures of koalas (she’s obsessed), and then giggles as she shows me..
I ask him if I can take some photos. In response he asks me if I know the photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Mary Ellen Mark is hands-down one of my all time favorite photographers; a prolific photojournalist from who I idealize. I’m covered in goosebumps as he casually replies ‘I don’t know much of her work, but for fifteen years I made hats for her.”
I love the romance of handcrafted pieces; in the stories they tell of a simpler time when things were made to last and be treasured. Heirlooms passed down through generations, not to be discarded with the next fashion trend.
While writing this I realise that my attraction to the olden days probably comes from my late father who passed away in 2015. Growing up I loved to look through his old photo albums from Italy, hearing his stories about the presents his father made him by hand and continually working with his hands for his entire life.
I find myself often considering the importance of handcrafted pieces and preserving these artforms that have been handed down through generations; not simply because it’s a focus of Piece Collectors, but because of the staggering contrast here in Oaxaca. Stores selling beautifully crafted textiles from the surrounding villages, sit next to fast fashion stores full of mass-produced junk. When visiting the supermarket, I ask myself, why would anyone buy their beans from here, instead of visiting the local bustling organic market? I love the beauty in the imperfect of handmade pieces. I love the stories of their makers. And most importantly, I love my new hat.
If you’re interested in having your own bespoke hat made by Armando you can contact us here.