Sombrero Vueltiao – From Peasants to the Pope

The sombrero vueltiao or vueltiado (Colombian Spanish for hat with laps) is a traditional hat from Colombia and one of its symbols. It is made out of Gynerium sagittatum known locally as caña flecha, a type of cane that grows in the region. The word vueltiao is a Colombian regionalism from the northern Caribbean Region and the area surrounding the Magdalena River basin that originates in the word for “lap” (Spanish:vuelta), and arose due to the way the hat is made. Vueltiao is correctly spelled vueltiado; however, the altered spelling reflects the actual pronunciation. The quality of the hat is determined by the number of “laps” used and its bending flexibility. The more flexible the hat is, the higher quality it is.

The making of the hat originated amongst the Zenú tribes of Colombia. The Colombian delegation to the 2004 Olympics wore the vueltiao during the opening ceremony. It is also traditionally worn by cumbia dancers and vallenato artists.

Types

There are five different types of sombrero vuelitaos and they are differentiated by their complexity. As an example, I will describe the easiest and the hardest to make. 

The Quinciano is the most commercially available Sombrero Vueltiao and also the cheapest. These hats are made in just three days, are loosely woven together, and only use fifteen pairs of caña flecha strips to make the weave.

The Veintisiete are the finest sombreros available and use twenty-seven pairs of caña flecha. They can be folded up and put in a pocket without being damaged. The weave is very dense, and is soft to the touch. The Veintisiete is the most expensive sombrero vueltiao and can take up to a month to produce by hand.

How to Make it

Making a sombrero vueltiao is a lengthy process. First, the caña flecha leaves must be dried and the veins removed using a knife and a piece of leather to obtain uniform, sturdy strips. The strips are then dried in the sun until they turn from green to beige or white, and are sorted according to color. The beige, or “dirty strips” (Spanish:sucias) are then soaked in sand-free black mud. After about three or four days in the mud, the colored strips are washed thoroughly with cold water and boiled in vija, another wild plant, for at least a couple of hours. After this, the tinted strips are again dried in the sun for several days, and the coloring process is repeated until they have reached a uniform black color.

After the desired colors are obtained, the caña flecha strips are weaved into braids that are used to form the sombrero. This can take many days, depending on the desired quality. The olma, or central part of the top of the hat, is the first part of the hat to be weaved. The crown of the hat and later the wings are made. Once the manual part of constructing the hat is finished, the hat is completed by using a foot-driven sewing machine to sew the hat together.

For a little more detail, below is a video (in Spanish) describing the different uses of the caña flecha and how the hats are made. 

From Peasantry to a National Symbol

The sombrero vueltiao is no longer just for Colombian peasants trying to stay cool in the heat, as its popularity has sharply risen. The increase in demand has also increased the price, such that the original farmers can no longer afford some of the finer hats. The sombrero has also become an admired and appreciated work of art appreciated both by Colombians and foreigners.

Most of these handmade hats are produced by entire Zenú families located in the Departments of Cordoba and Sucre.

This iconic symbol of Colombia has been sported by hundreds of personalities, including Pope John Paul II when he visited Colombia in 1986, and former President of the United States Bill Clinton when he visited Cartagena, Colombia in August of 2000.

For more information on these savanna hats and how to buy one, go here to Somos Vallenato.

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