High up in Lebanon rugged mountains, hatter Youssef Akiki is one of the last artisans to practice the millennial art of making traditional warm woolen hats, once worn wide against the icy cold of winter.
Akiki believes he may be the last commercial manufacturer of labbadeh sheep wool — the name comes from the Arabic word for felt or labd — a waterproof and warm hat dyed off-white, gray, brown or black.
“The elders of the village make their own labbads,” says Akiki, who also wears the traditional baggy trousers.
Akiki, 60, from the snow-covered village of Khrajel, located more than 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) in the mountains behind Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, says making the hat requires a meticulous process.
After drying the sheep’s wool in the sun, he molds it into water and Aleppo soap, which contains olive oil and bay leaf extract, to turn it into felt with his hands.
“It helps the wool shrink so it becomes pliable like dough,” he said, showing his hands, hardened from years of toil.
It’s a slow process, he says, that allows him to create “a maximum of three labbads in one day”.
Although hats are practical and warm, few people wear them today.
The caps are mostly bought by tourists – or Lebanese who are nostalgic for their childhood – and they often buy them not to wear, but to display at home.
“The state must guarantee us markets and places for exhibitions,” the artisan said.
ALSO READ: Lebanese outraged by water pipe tax
The income from the hat trade is not enough to survive, and Akiki also works as a farmer, especially given the severe economic crisis that has gripped Lebanon in recent years.
Lebanese economic turmoil
The economic turmoil in Lebanon has left many struggling to make ends meet, with poverty rates reaching 80 percent of the population, according to the United Nations.
Akiki believes that the design of the labbade is rooted in the caps worn by the ancient Phoenicians, although their style was “more elongated”.
Today, he is experimenting with more modern designs to attract more clients and teaching his nephews the time-honored craft to keep his skills up.