11 Plant Materials You Can Use to Make a Hat

Asian Hat Collection Donated by Barbara Park

We are part of nature: its biodiversity provides us with resources that build our livelihood. Plants in different lands and climate grow in various forms and heights, and each species developed its exceptional character. Leaves, vines, and grasses inspired endless possibilities to make a hat.

Before humans roamed the earth, plants were already in place. Our ancestors relied on nature for their daily survival, and this relationship built civilisation. Leaves and twigs were made into temporary baskets to carry hunted and gathered foods. Plant materials were manipulated to make items such as mats, roofs, and walls for shelter. Eventually, plant fibres were extracted and processed into yarns, then woven into cloth to clothe us, giving birth to textile culture.

Various Arecaceae, 1892, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
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The palm tree is the iconic plant of the tropics, belonging to the perennial botanical family of Arecaceae. Fifty-three million years ago, Antarctica was so warm that palm trees lived along its shores. Currently, 181 genera with around 2600 species are known. Of the eleven plant materials chosen here, five of them belong to the Palm family.

Livistonia Rotundifolia (2010) by Kumar83China National Silk Museum

1. Anahaw Palm (Saribus rotundifolius)

The leaf of Saribus rotundifolius, (Anahaw palm in Filipino, round-leaf fountain palm, Footstool palm, fan palm) is the unofficial national leaf of the Philippines. Its big palmate leaves are useful for thatching and food packaging.

Anahaw Palm leaf hat with bamboo rings supportChina National Silk Museum

In China, the trimmed round leaves become hand-held fans and hats; the trunk makes walking sticks and umbrella handles; and the toughness of the fibre can even be used to make into ropes.

Pointed split bamboo plaited hat (2005)China National Silk Museum

2. Chinese Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)

The Chinese windmill palm is one of the hardiest palms. It tolerates moist summers as well as cold winters, as it grows at much higher altitudes than other species, up to 2,400 m in the mountains of Southern China.

For centuries, this palm has been cultivated in China and Japan, for its coarse but firm leaf sheath fibre, used for making rope, sacks, and other coarse cloth where high strength is essential. The sheath is in an interlaced sheet form that is water repellent, making it the choice material as raincape for the farmer. The fibre is also used for brushes and made into ropes that weave a springy bed.

Cocos nucifera Blanco (1880/1883) by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.)China National Silk Museum

3. Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

The coconut palm is known as the “Tree of Life” in the Philippines. The fruit provides juice and flesh for food, coir fibres used for ropes and mats, and the shell is a natural container. The leaves grow in the pinnate form, which is convenient to be interlaced circularly to become an instant hat or basket.

Coconut Leaf frond plaited hatChina National Silk Museum

This hat was from Barbara’s 1978 scuba diving trip to the Philippines. These hats made of fresh leaves are often presented to the visitors as welcome gift and a reminder to shade oneself from the intense sun.

Buri Palm reed plaited hat with 6-pointed star (1989)China National Silk Museum

4. Buri Palm (Corypha umbraculifera)

In the Philippines, leaves of the Buri Palm are for thatching, and the sap is tapped to make palm wine. The strong ribs of the leaves are used to make brooms and brushes. The seeds are polished, sometimes dyed and cut into beads as accessories.

Fine, soft fibres from the petioles of the Buri Palm are plaited into the famous Buntal hats which compares to the elegant Panama hat. 

Rattan flat top hat with black coatingChina National Silk Museum

5. Rattan (Calamus)

Calamus is a genus of the palm family Arecaceae. There are an estimated 400 species in this genus, all native to tropical and subtropical Asia, Africa, and Australia. The climbing palm is fast-growing and to aid scrambling, some species have evolved hooks on the underside of the midrib. These stems may grow to lengths of 200 metres.

With the thorny bark removed, the lightweight material of high flexibility and length is useful in many ways. Desired diameters can be cut: thick ones used for furniture and walking sticks and thin ones for a soft mat.

Bamboo forest in Kyoto (2018) by Mx. GrangerChina National Silk Museum

6. Bamboo

Bamboo (Bambusoideae) of the grass family (Poaceae) include some of the fastest-growing plants in the world; certain species of bamboo can grow 900 mm within 24 hours. There are more than 1,400 species of bamboo, placed in 115 genera.

Bamboo helmet of foot soldier from Late Qing DynastyChina National Silk Museum

Bamboo plays an integral part in Chinese culture, both economically and culturally. Before the invention of paper, ancient China first wrote their text on bamboo stripes, and the writing brushes have a bamboo shaft to hold the hairs.

Bamboo plaited hat with cloth square, waterproofed with Kakishibu (fermented persimmon juice) (2003)China National Silk Museum

Bamboo is omnipresent in China because of its availability, lightness, strength and flexibility: buildings, musical instruments, weapons, farm tools, and cooking utensils. 

Bamboo sheath conical hat on bamboo plaited frame (2000)China National Silk Museum

7. Bamboo Sheath

Bamboo culm sheath has been considered a modified leaf. In young shoots, every node bears a sheath, and the stiff sheaths envelop the culm’s most fragile section, they fall off easily from fast-growing bamboos.

The sheath is water-repellent; it is used to wrap rice balls in Japan; and tea packaging in China. The biggest bamboo sheaths are from the Dragon bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus), the sheaths are large and broad, with a length of 24–30 cm, and width of 40–60 cm. 

Gourd Hat with plaited edge (2004)China National Silk Museum

8. Gourd (Cucurbita)

Bottle gourd, Calabash, (Lagenaria siceraria) Gourds belongs to the family of Cucurbita, which includes pumpkin. In the Philippines, they are big and round, “Tabungaw” in Ilocano dialect, and “Upo” in Tagalog, the national language.

When they are around six months old, they are ready for harvest, dried and cut apart to become the “Upo” hat.

Nito fern stem plaited hat (2000)China National Silk Museum

9. Nito (Lygodium)

Lygodium (climbing fern) is a genus of about 40 species of ferns, native to tropical regions across the world, with a few temperate species in eastern Asia and eastern North America.

Plaited hat with contrast dark Nito barkChina National Silk Museum

In the Philippines, it is called “Nito” and widely harvested for crafts. The shade difference between the outer bark and inner bark are often made use of as a decorative effect.

Straw of the rice (2008) by Masaki Ikeda; Edit by Waugsberg (crop)China National Silk Museum

10. Rice Straw (Oryza Sativa)

Rice straw is the by-product of rice cultivation, abundant in Asia where rice is the staple food. It is used to feed animals, for roof thatching, mattress stuffing, packing, and as fuel. It is soft and light, so easy to manipulate.

Rice straw hat used for Awa Odori festival procession JapanChina National Silk Museum

Though It is not very durable, the availability makes it a popular material; and often made into hats, rain cape and footwear.

Pandanus leaves plaited pointed hat (2002)China National Silk Museum

11. Pandan leaf (Pandanus)

Pandanus is often mistaken as a palm, and it belongs to a genus of monocots with some 750 species. They are dioecious trees and shrubs native to the tropics and subtropics.

For handicrafts, Pandanus leaves are collected from the wild, cutting only mature leaves so that the plant will naturally regenerate. The leaves are sliced into strips of standard width for plaiting. They can be easily dyed into bright colours, and plaited into mats and bags. 

The hat collection gives us an excellent opportunity to review how plant resources around us affect our lives. Today, in a world over-supplied with colourful manufactured items, these hats, made of perishable materials, might look primitive and outdated. Through these humble hats, let us ponder again, how humans take reference from nature, and how our evolution depends on working with nature.

Credits: Story

Co-curators: ZHOU Yang, CHEUNG Sai May Edith 
Exhibition advisor: ZHAO Feng
Exhibition assistance: JIA Liling
Exhibition design: DONG Feiyan, WANG Jueying
Catalogue design: ZHANG Yuyan
Exhibits management: ZHANG Guowei, MO Senyao
Exhibit photography: LI Yongjia

The Barbara Park Asian Hat Collection of 128 items was donated to the China National Silk Museum in 2016, to enable in-depth study of crafts and appreciation of the diversity of the natural world and cultures in the region. 
Barbara is an Australian entrepreneur who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over fifty years. Her parents and grandparents have all been keen gardeners and craftspeople, so her appreciation of nature is firmly in her blood. Her favourite colour is green. For twenty-five years she had a landscaping business throughout Asia, during which the collection of hats was amassed. She also collects a variety of Asian crafts including porcelain, wood carvings, baskets and textiles.
She is a Life Member of many cultural associations, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Friends of the Museum, Chinese University, the Friends of the Hong Kong University Museum, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Gardening Society. So many handcrafts are disappearing in Barbara's lifetime that she felt dutybound to collect and is delighted that the hats can be shared with so many visitors from Hangzhou, China, and visitors from around the world.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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