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A trip to China

The article below describes a trip that I took with my father back in 1985 shortly after I joined the company. My father who had visited China several times persuaded the Arts & Crafts Corporation, who in those days completely controlled the export of Sisal hat bodies, to take us to see how these iconic hats are made. They were rather reluctant but in the end relented after he told them he would only bring me to China if we could go to the weaving centre. I believe that we were at that time the first Europeans who had seen this process, a premise bourn out by the strange looks we received whilst at the factory and walking round the town. This was a time before the normal Chinese family had a television and certainly before the internet, so we were viewed with some suspicion and perhaps fear – I was later told by the factory manager that some people thought we were a kind of monkey due to my facial and body hair! The beard has long since gone as has the naivety of the Chinese.

Today the centralist controlled Arts & Crafts Corporation has disappeared together with much of the skilled weavers who are sadly more likely to assemble electronic components in the huge factories in urban centres rather than stay with their family on their small holdings. Nevertheless, although considerably diminished in terms of quantity and quality, the process is still exactly the same as described. Hat bodies are still woven at home in the rural communities, as an addition to normal farm work, although the processing factories have been updated with modern equipment and work practices over the intervening period.

I think it is worth noting that weaving process is not carried out under water as the legend maintains even today. Also the raw material is not in fact sisal but actually abaca fibre from the centre of the trunk of the manila hemp tree. This is the same base material as used for sinamay but of the best and finest quality.


DOCUMENT BEGINS HERE (all images from 1985!)

Our firm has been connected with the hat trade for over 30 years, specialising particularly in importing straw hoods from China. Although the products are extensively used for making ladies straw hats in this country, indeed all over the world, very little was known to us of the actual manufacture of sisol hoods. Although I have made several visits to China in the past, I never actually have been able to visit the factory. This time the China Arts and Crafts Corporation made arrangements to that effect for my son and myself and the visit took place at the end of September.

After the flight via Hongkong to Hangzhou, where we stayed for two days and were well looked after by the Corporation, a three and a half hour train journey took us to Ningbo, a shipping port from which the goods are exported. Our constant travelling companions were a charming Chinese girl who acted as guide and translator and a gentleman from the section with which we do our business.

After a nights stay at Ningbo, the transit van from the factory took us to Taizhou. The journey through mountainous country, paddy fields and a few small towns and villages, lasted over five and a half hours. A very interesting but tiring trip, partly extremely dusty on account of numerous road works. At the factory we were welcomed as the first Europeans to pay a visit to them.

The Zhejiang Sisol Hat Manufacturing Factory is situated at Taizhou, a small town approximately 200 miles south east of Hangzhou, the provincial capital. The factory complex occupies a 3.5 hectare site and consists of a number of single and double storey units. Recently two new five storey buildings have been added. The factory impressed us as well organised, clean and well equipped.

The present factory has been established for some thirty years and was originally exclusively concerned with the hat industry, but in recent years has diversified and added to it's production the manufacture of natural and synthetic woven products such as bedspreads, curtain materials, bags, etc. They also have a few very modern weaving looms. Approximately eight hundred people are employed at the factory involved in the processing of the various products including the famous sisol and parasisol hoods.

In addition to the factory work force they have approximately 100,000 home workers, practically all women, who are employed on a piece rate basis to weave the sisol and parasisol hoods by hand. The annual production lies between 150,000 to 200,000 doxen (this does not include Xian, Wheat or Visca).

The Making of Sisol Hoods

The raw material, sisol, is imported from the Philippines. In order to obtain the best fibre, the factory must also accept some lower quality which is mainly used for cheaper hoods and lower grades.

The fibre is stored in a warehouse at the factory from where it is distributed to various local "pick up" points in the rural communities for collection by the homeworkers. Finished hoods are returned by the reverse route.

The raw material consists of strands of natural fibre (sisol), in approximately three to four foot lengths of a similar nature and thickness to horse hair.

The manufacturing process has a number of stages which are undertaken both in the home and in the factory and are described briefly as follows:-

Stage 1

A quantity of fibre is taken from the pile and roughly sorted into equal lengths. Experience tells the homeworker how much material is required for the type of hood to be woven. The fibres are then tied to the back of a chair and teased out by hand to separate the individual fibres.

Stage 2

Once the individual fibres are teased out, four fibres are glued together by hand with starch to form a sort of flat strand which is the basic material from which the hood is woven. This process of glueing takes up to four hours to produce sufficient material to weave one hood.

Stage 3

When the glued strands are dry, the worker counts out a fixed number and starts the weaving process by making "a button" (centre of crown). Strands are either woven one over one for the "sisal" pattern or two over two for the "parasisol". The hand action of the weaver is so fast that it is impossible to appreciate it fully and it is obvious that the skill takes years to acquire. It is interesting to note that the quality and grade of the hood depends on the skill of the individual worker and not only on the quality of the fibre, or final factory finishing. There are relatively few workers capable of weaving the highest grades. This accounts for the limited availability of the better grade hoods.

Although each strand is of sufficient length to complete the hood without jointing, additional strands are required to be woven in as the work proceeds and the hoods get larger and the shape changes viz. from top of crown to sides to brims.

The weaving in of new strands takes place at regular intervals and it is at these points that "pin holes" can appear if the weave is not tight enough A finished hood contains thousands of strands, the actual number is even unknown to the weavers.

The last few rows of the hood are woven in a "tying off" weave and left with the unused material still attached.

Depending on the type of hood, the weaving by hand of a single one takes between twenty to twenty five hours.

Stage 4

When the hoods are returned to the factory, they are counted and a preliminary quality check is carried out before the factory based processing procedures takes place.

Stage 5

The first part of the process is to cut off the main part of the unwoven strands left on the hoods by the homeworkers. On the capelines about one quarter of an inch is left on to avoid the possibility of the hood being pulled apart during the bleaching and washing processes. The cones are completely trimmed at this stage. This procedure is called "the first cut" .

Stage 6

After the first cut the hoods are bleached in vast vats. Bleach is manufactured on site. The process is the same as in our dye works over here. Bleaching takes approximately twenty four hours.

Stage 7

After bleaching the hoods are individually washed by hand. The hoods are scraped with a sort of plastic wedge and the heels of the worker's hand to make them supple.

After washing the hoods are checked to ensure that they are thoroughly clean prior to drying.

Drying is a two stage process. Most of the water is extracted by using industrial spin dryers. Afterwards the hoods are individually placed flat on a moving belt which passes slowly under electrical heating elements.

Stage 8

After drying the hoods are checked for any imperfections such as dark or missing strands. Any defective hood is repaired by removing the offending strands and replacing them with good ones. This is done with a needle.

Stage 9

The hoods are then blocked. The presses are generally coal fired, although these are now being replaced with hydraulic presses, two of which are already in use.

Stage 10

After blocking the hoods receive a final trim to remove the loose strands left after the first cut. The hoods are then graded. This task is performed by about twenty skilled operatives who initially sort the hoods into piles, containing grades I and II, grades III and IV, etc. Final selection is made by the most senior and experienced staff and sorted into the final individual grades from the preselected piles. Grading is based on the closeness of the weave.

The hoods are then sent on for onward shipping.