Old design, new idea

Hue now offers visitors a new type of gift - conical hats made from lotus leaves - a product initiated by a man born in a typical hat-making village in the imperial city.

By Story: Song Phuoc on October 16,2017 11:04 AM

Old design, new idea

Photos: Hoang Hai

Conical hats made from dried palm leaves are a symbol of the charm of Vietnam, amazing visitors from other around the world and grabbed as they depart the country.

Palm leaf headwear has been worn by Vietnamese for some 3,500 years, as carvings of conical hats on Dong Son bronze drums proves.

To make a hat, makers first tear out a palm leaf and dry it. They later iron the torn leaves to flatten them and then put them on round bamboo frames before tying the leaves onto the frames using a needle and thin plastic thread.

On top of the conical shape, the maker places a round cotton button and glues up the tiny needle holes to complete a hat. Wearers tie a silk ribbon on the bottom edge to help stop the hat from blowing away in the wind.

Conical hats remain popular today thanks to their ability to shield wearers from rain and sunlight, and are still considered a fashion item by many young women.

Hue’s hat makers are among the most skilled in the country, with the hat making craft still common in the city. Almost every woman in Hue would make their own conical hat in the past.

There are 15 villages maintaining the craft, including Doc So, just behind the citadel, which was the main supplier of good quality conical hats during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). Today the village is home to the biggest producers of Hue conical hats and is also known as a material supplier.

Old design, new idea

Nguyen Thanh Thao, a recent graduate from the Hue University of Arts, was born in the village and has been familiar with hat making process since he was a child. He studied graphic design and his university project was processing the leaves of trees and plants for hat making.

During his research on lotus leaves, he linked them to hats made in his home village. ‘I found that lotus leaves had a conical shape when turned upside down,’ he explained. ‘I then began to think about making hats with these leaves.’

He began using lotus leaves earlier this year, for a covering layer on traditional conical hats.

He first seeks lotus leaves with the right shape and size, which he soaks in bleach and dries before handing them over to hat weavers he works with, who make a hat cover.

The vertical stripes that emerge naturally on the hats give the lotus hats a unique appearance while remaining functional. ‘The layer of lotus leaves makes the hats even more charming,’ according to Thao.

The adding of processed lotus leaves on traditional palm hats requires skill, and it seems that Thao is fortunate that the weavers in Doc So were able to make turn his idea into reality.

Ho Thi Phan, an artisan working with Thao making lotus leaf conical hats, said the innovation requires more time and effort in weaving a hat. ‘Making this type of hat is not easy and I had to spend a lot of time practicing,’ she said.

Thao is now looking for a market for his innovative hats, which sell as high as three-times the price of traditional conical hat. The hats were recently introduced as a typical Hue item and offered as gifts to South Korean artists visiting the city on cultural exchanges.

His innovations have sustained the popularity of the headwear and he nurtures an idea of using processed lotus leaves for lantern covers and gift boxes.

Together with lotus leaf hats, Thao’s innovations on other items are expected to diversify gifts visitors can choose from in the city.

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