SEPTEMBER 2, 2019
Hats Off to Vanuatu, Weavers take on the World
Millinery magic with a royal twist. The Pacific Brim success story. By Alex Bortoli.
Everyone loves a ‘feel good’ story. And this is up there with the best of them. In fact, if it wasn’t
true, you’d be hard pressed to make up such an unlikely but perfect confluence of events. So how
exactly did a group of traditional women weavers in Vanuatu link up with an internationally renowned
hat maker to create a brand of Vanuatu hats now being exported throughout the world?
Essentially, this is a modern day fairy tale with a royal twist, thanks to Prince Charles purchasing a
beautifully woven pandanus hat for his wife Camilla to wear during their recent visit to Vanuatu. But
more on this later.
The story begins in 2015, when Australian milliner, Rosie Boylan, visits the island of Espiritu Santo
and connects with local weavers from the islands of Malo and Espiritu Santo.
She is stunned by the weaving expertise of the women, who are adept at making bags, baskets and mats
from coconut and pandanus leaves and who have inherited their skills as part of a rich and living
culture spanning thousands of years of Vanuatu history.
Now keep in mind Boylan is no ordinary hat maker. In addition to being a highly respected craftswomen
with 35 years’ experience in the industry, her bespoke hats have featured in several Hollywood movies,
including Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Piano, Peter Pan and The Great Gatsby, as well as in major
theatre productions like The King and I, Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies. Cate Blanchett is a
fan (which is interesting, as Cate is also a well known Vanuatu investor and supporter!).
Boylan immediately recognises the potential for creating a new craft hub in Santo and the women bond
out of a mutual respect for their craft. They begin exploring the possibilities of translating their
weaving skills into making quality headwear for a global market.
As luck would have it, the group attracts the attention the Sanma Skills Centre, run by the Vanuatu
Ministry of Education and Training and supported by the Australian Government through the Vanuatu
Skills Partnership. They engage Boylan as one of their industry coaches.
Working as a team with respected community leader, Janet Sine, the duo develop new hat making tools,
purchase specialised hat-making equipment and begin to train and coach the women in hat weaving. They
quickly take the group’s skills and production output to a whole new level, and under Boylan’s Pacific
Brim label, the hats are further enhanced with quality finishings designed to appeal to an
And here’s where the fairy tale aspect comes into it. Because you see, even with the best of
intentions and a feel good story woven into every hat, sometimes political, cultural and economic
interests intervene to unravel the potential of a wonderful project. But not this time.
This time the stars align and Sanma style hats begin spreading their brims beyond the island’s
borders, first to local shops and then overseas. This is thanks, in no small part, to the Vanuatu
Government’s commitment to promoting a ‘Made in Vanuatu’ brand and Boylan’s extensive expertise and
In fact, Vanuatu’s Sanma-style hats can now be found in shops as far away as Japan and New Zealand and
gracing the windows of prestigious hat stores in Sydney’s Strand Arcade as well as in Newtown. Custom
made options are also being sought after by bespoke clients peppered throughout the world via Pacific
Brim’s on-line shop.
Best of all, in true fairy tale style, the success of the project both overseas and locally is having
a magical, transformative effect back on Santo. The women’s groups are becoming increasingly confident
in both their weaving and business skills. They are discovering economic empowerment and spreading the
message throughout their communities that locally made handicrafts have value and can be both
sustainable and profitable.
As for Rosie Boylan, she is over the moon with the progress of the Skills Centre ‘Sanma-style’ hat
“This story is not about me. It’s about the local weavers, their cultural heritage and the remarkable
network that is supporting and empowering them. Our vision is for the women to own their own
businesses and ultimately be selling their handicrafts locally, nationally and internationally with
fair trade principles in place.”
Which brings us back to that beautiful hat Prince Charles buys Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall,
during their visit to Vanuatu in April 2018. The hat is a product of another women’s group mentored by
Boylan and based in Port Vila (appropriately called WEAV).
And sure, in the perfect fairy tale ending a hat would be worn by a princess and it would save her
from a fate worse than death (or perhaps help her catch the eye of her one true love). But in the real
world a Prince and a Duchess helping to promote sustainability and empowerment in a tiny Pacific
island nation is as close to a happy ending as you can get!