Malta Diary Keep your cap on – Josef last man standing?
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Malta’s Grand Harbour gave birth to the cluster of habitations on the harbour’s north-eastern coastline and eventually these panned out to become The Three Cities, that is Senglea (known as Isla in Maltese and named after the Grandmaster Le Sengle), Vittoriosa (known in Maltese as Birgu, that is Borgo as this was the capital city used by the Knights of Malta and named to commemorate the Great Siege Victory over the Ottomans in 1565) and Cospicua (known as Bormla in Maltese and named by the Knights for the conspicuous courage of its inhabitants).
Inextricably, down through the centuries, the lives of the inhabitants were directly linked to the sea, the provision of their livelihood, as sailors, tradesmen, chandlers and providers of various services. The Knights built their dockyard at Cospicua and the British vastly expanded it to become an invaluable tool to the British Royal Navy, particularly during the Second World War.
Today’s marine links are not so strong but still highly apparent as a telephone directory of surnames from the cities is an international directory, the descendants of sailors and visitors who over the centuries set their roots in Malta, married Maltese girls and of course had countless children.
Such a family is the Barbara family from Birgu i.e. Vittoriosa, a surname of Sicilian origins with different variations such as Barbieri, Barbere, etc. with grandfather Ġużeppi (Joseph) Barbara and his son Ġeraldu (Gerald) exercising a trade that directly earned their livelihood from the Royal Navy.
Their trade – milliners, hand-making caps for British sailors and soldiers and to a lesser volume caps for Maltese policemen and Court Marshalls.
As with most Maltese families, they had a nickname and theirs was simply ‘Tal-Brieret’ – “those that make hats and caps”. Ġużeppi and Ġeraldu have now passed on, leaving grandson and son Josef Barbara to continue the profession, but sadly a dying profession that is down on its last legs, with Josef probably the last man standing in the Maltese islands still hand-making caps and the occasional hat.
Wistfully, over the years, Josef has remarked that unless some new apprentice shows a willingness to enter the trade it will die out when he dies. The chances of an apprentice are virtually remote. The disappearance of the British military forces dealt a great blow and sophisticated hat and cap-making machinery dealt the other blow.
Josef followed his father’s footsteps at the early age of nine, on his own initiative. He heard his father talking to a friend who had just been appointed a Court Marshall and needed a cap and Josef successfully made it for him, and as they say, the rest is history.
Now 74-years-old, Josef looks back on a blissful marriage to Grace spanning 56 years and recalls that Grace has been his pillar of fortitude, continually encouraging him to carry on as well as spurring him to show greater skills in the making. Although from Vittoriosa, Josef and his forefathers moved around the Cottonera district (that is The Three Cities), always locating working rooms in the port area to be near their market.
He still works on a 200 year old foot pedal sewing machine to keep the profession alive, but sadly there appears to be nothing to stop the eventual total decline and extinction.
Josef explained the art involved in the making, taking accurate head measurements, modelling the four quarters and then the crown, followed by the lining and the perimeter and finally putting them altogether to create the frame and fit the material.
Sadly he is very much fighting a losing battle as with many other artistic skills in the textile trade as well as a majority of other trades. Hand-making is delicate and intricate and largely time-consuming in a world where speed and technology, like time and tide, wait for no man.
It’s a sad indictment on our modern life as the past rapidly fades into the distance to render many skilful aspects as a thing of the past.
Pictures courtesy of TVM News.
On a weekly basis I am inserting a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche.
“What his eyes see, his hands make”
The hallmarks of a skilled tradesperson.