Forged in battle, protected by honor: A warm wool hat

Why We Wrote This

What value is in a hat? Warmth? Fashion? Both? A better question might be: What values? In a Tunis souk, an exclusive society of hat-masters ruled by honor and tradition manufacture the iconic chachiya.

Taylor Luck
Tunisian hat-master Abdullatif Zurdazi prepares a "chachiya" for packaging at his shop in the centuries-old Souk Chaouachine in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 25, 2019.

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Legend has it that a 7th-century Muslim general, leading an army into battle in what is now central Tunisia, admired a red cap worn by one of his Uzbek infantrymen. The cap was modified, became in vogue among the soldiers, and an industry sprang up to produce it.

Economic need drove the hatmakers across the Mediterranean to southern Spain. There they adopted soft wools, local dyes, and a unique knitting process. The chachiya, today a Tunisian national icon, was born.

When war drove the hatmakers back to North Africa, they brought a clanlike guild and an honor system, and set up shop in a souk near Tunis’ iconic Zaitouna mosque, where they remain today. But you either have to be invited or inherit the right to spin the most popular headwear in North Africa.

“As an outsider, it took years of hard work and convincing before they finally accepted me and invited me into the family,” says hat-master Abdullatif Zurdazi at his store at the center of the souk. “But once you are in, you are in for life.”

Through a large arched door with a heavy metal bolt lies a small and winding souk where three-dozen men and women knit, snip, iron, and smooth to keep a centuries-old craft alive.

This ancient Tunisian society of professionals is busy fending off one of its latest challenges: Chinese knockoffs of their chachiya hat.

But the giant lock to Souk Chaouachine is largely ceremonial. What truly guards this market in Tunis’ old city is a close-knit community that amid tufts of red wool has ruled its craft with an iron fist, transforming a woven hat into a national icon and continentwide fashion statement.

For the chachiya, the product of this exclusive club in Tunis, is everywhere.

The smooth, red wool cap lines shop windows and adorns the heads of shopkeepers, bakers, couriers, imams, and every other man over the age of 50.

It is the headwear of choice for all ages during holidays and festivals; even street cleaners don a chachiya during the cold winter months.

But here at the market, which the hat has made a national landmark, you either have to be invited or inherit the right to spin the most popular headwear in North Africa.

“As an outsider, it took years of hard work and convincing before they finally accepted me and invited me into the family,” says hat-master Abdullatif Zurdazi, 68, as he combs the frizzy ends of a white chachiya at his store at the center of the souk.

“But once you are in, you are in for life.”

A general’s admiration

This band-of-brothers camaraderie is said to date back to the very first chachiya, itself forged on the front lines of battle and linked to the 7th-century arrival of Islam in North Africa.

Legend has it that leading an army of Muslims from western Asia across North Africa, Uqbaa bin Nafaa, a general, admired a red cap worn by one of his Uzbek infantrymen as they prepared for battle against Berber fighters in what is now central Tunisia.

Due to the general’s enthusiasm, the cap was modified and became in vogue among the soldiers. After the victory, the capital that they founded – Kairouan – began an industry producing the hat.

An economic collapse in the 10th century drove Kairouan’s hatmakers across the Mediterranean and to southern Spain, where they were introduced to soft Spanish wools, local dyes, and a unique knitting process. It all came together to create the perfect lightweight warm cap for the wet and unpredictably chilly Mediterranean winters. The chachiya was born.

The Christian armies’ drive south and eventual defeat of Muslim city-states in Granada and Toledo in the 14th and 15th centuries drove tens of thousands of Andalusian refugees – and the chachiya makers – to flee to North Africa.

Sensing an economic opportunity, Tunis’ ruler invited the refugees to set up shop near the iconic Zaitouna mosque, where they remain today.

Code of honor

More than just artisanal know-how, these Andalusian refugees brought with them their clanlike guild and an honor system that is enforced to this day.

The artisans and families have internal laws, a council, and a strict system outlining how the hats must be constructed, what shape and color, and who should be allowed to open up shop.

Under the guild system, only the maalm, or master hatmaker, is licensed to run a shop and stamp his family name on the hat cartons. It’s a title that must be earned or inherited.

An apprentice must work for several years and pass rigorous tests judged by fellow hatmakers to be even considered for a hat-master license.

With families controlling the art for generations, it is a notoriously hard line of work to break in to.

Even rules of inheritance are strict: Only one son can be selected as a successor as hat-master, a stipulation designed to prevent family feuds among brothers from splitting the business and creating rival branches.  

Mr. Zurdazi is already printing the names of his eldest son, Mohammed Ali, next to his on their hat boxes.

The strict specifications, quality control, and exclusivity have helped the chachiya remain a hat made entirely by hand.

The chachiya starts its life out as thick wool thread, which Tunisian women spend an hour knitting with five thick needles balanced between their fingers to produce a kaboos, a comically oversized white knitted hat.

Workers then spend 12 hours washing and soaking this knitted wool in boiling water and soap until it shrinks, firms, and takes shape. The hat is then dyed and dried, and apprentices painstakingly comb out the rough edges to give the hat a soft feel and a buoyant, fuzzy body.

Hatmakers then fit the cap onto one of dozens of wooden or clay stumps of different sizes and proceed to iron every inch of the hat several times over.

The pressed chachiya sits on the peg for 24 hours to cool before hatmakers must sew their “mark,” a symbol distinct only to them, on the inside of the cap, to prevent imitations.

It is said that 18 different people work on any given chachiya. It is an old-fashioned assembly line that allows this community to churn out 400,000 flawless but distinct hats each year, reaching markets in nearby Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and as far away as East Asia.

Greener pastures?

But after two decades fending off Chinese machine-made chachiyas, the guild may have met its match.

With a vibrant and open post-revolution society, younger Tunisians are moving away from a craft that requires 12-hour workdays, six-day weeks, and marginal profits.

“Banking, finance, doctors – very few young people have the patience to craft an art with their hands,” says Mohammed Mahdi, a hatmaker.

“I want to encourage my son to continue the craft, but I don’t want to push him into a dying profession.”

A market that once held 75 hatmakers has dwindled to 20 artisans, hatmakers say, although demand for the headwear remains high.

In a bid to attract young Tunisians and women both to buy and consider entering the trade, new colors have appeared at the chachiya market; the round wool hats now appear in white, green, blue, and flamingo pink. Tassels have sprouted on the top of some hats; others sport rhinestones, decorative silver pins, and even fake eyelashes.

In the past two years, the souk has welcomed its first female hat-master, and the chachiya has become a trademark piece for models on the catwalks and in magazines. 

But even as the hat once again changes shape, one thing remains the same: the brotherhood’s push to make sure the next generation that follows in their footsteps adopts their ancient ways.

“Together as chachiya-makers we stand, and together we will fall,” says Mr. Zurdazi. “This is not just a hat, this is our inheritance.”

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