Travel Notes: Panama’s Beautiful Traditional Textiles

We just spent a couple of days in Panama City en route back to Montevideo.  We’ve been there several times,  but this time was the first visit to the Ancon Hill, a 654-foot hill that overlooks the city of Panama. The area was used for the administration of the Panama Canal, and was under U.S.A. jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone until being returned to Panama in 1999.  Now a reserve, the hill is the highest point in Panama City with spectacular views over the city and over the canal zone.  I have no idea why we didn’t go up there before this …and part way up/down is a display of typical houses and clothes of the country’s interior set up as a rural farm village, Mi Pueblito.  It was interesting to wander around in a farm house

Ancon Hill - Mi pueblita farmhouse

and a school room which would have been contemporaneous with the spread of European civilisation in rural Outback Australia following the gold and wool booms of the mid-late C19.

Though the day was not excessively hot not humid, it was nice to step into an air conditioned display area where the traditional  textile crafts were on show.  What a delight.  Our driver told us that the traditional costumes on display are typical of what comes out for Carnaval each year,  and the costumes or La Pollera, feature an embroidered and/or appliqued skirt with matching blouse, an embroidered white underskirt, head ornaments called tembleques (worn in pairs, one each side of the head, so named because their floral and other organic forms are designed to ‘tremble’ or flutter) and gold jewellery described here with fabulous images that make what we saw look rather modest! How I’d love to be in Panama the few days before Lent when it all gets very competitive, apparently – according to our guide this year’s parades were the biggest ever with over 3500 competing for the honour of winning a golden crown ornament worn in with the tembleques.

Usually white and most often either very fine linen or cotton voile lawn or cambric, the skirts and matching blouse are wonderfully hand embroidered and appliqued with plant and animal shapes, in some of the very finest applique stitchery I have ever seen anywhere.  This white skirt and blouse are hand embroidered in black, possibly Assissi work, and cross stitch is common, with the underside of the skirt showing the back of the embroidery – very neat and beautifully finished.

La Pollera completo

The La Pollera outfits also feature bands of handmade bobbin lace called trencillas – there’s one on this skirt just where the lace frill was added.  You’ll find plenty 0f  YouTube videos of a lacemaker going full speed, either working from a paper chart pattern or freely reading directly from a pattern already worked – with bobbins flying over and under, such as this one ! I’ve seen it done but never tried it myself. On the right of my pic are some of the samples we saw in the museum.

Panama - textiles at La Pueblita ANCONA1

Our guide told me a nice complete outfit would set me back anything from US$20,000 to US$50,000 – hardly surprising given all the beautiful handwork involved in each one of the traditional pieces.  I read somewhere that most Panamanian women only ever have two of them – one as a young woman and another when married.  Clearly they’re as special as their making suggests, and are very carefully looked after. I think I’ll just be happy with any future encounters in museums and hoping to be in the country at the time just before Lent one year – a parade of women wearing these would be fabulous to see.


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