Panama hats are one of the oldest, most classic fashion accessories, made famous by men such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. There is an essence of superior quality that is embedded in these hand woven hats. At first glance, appearing as linen or silk, the master weavers of Ecuador have made their living one weave at a time. So how did these legendary hats make it from an outpost just south of the equator to the windows of NYC, and why do some pay thousands of dollars for just one hat? Maybe you would like to know why they are called panama hats, when in fact they are and always have been made in Ecuador by Ecuadorians!
Let’s go back to the mid 1800’s, when the Ecuadorians first started to export their hats. They exported their hats through the Isthmus of Panama. There they were sold and made their way to various places around the world. During the Spanish American War in 1898, the U.S. purchased 50,000 hats for the troops from merchants in Panama, which is thought to be one way the hats got their name. However, during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20’s, these hats were given to the workers to protect them from the sun. You can understand now why these hats were thought to be from Panama.
The long road to the New York City shops (and of course to Hats in the Belfry) all starts in a coastal village in Ecuador known as Cadeate. There are five days in every lunar cycle where Ecuadorians harvest toquilla straw (carludovica palmate), which is the straw that goes into creating the wonderful hats. These palm-like, 5-10ft tall, wild plants are scheduled for harvest five days after the moon reached its waning quarter. The reason for this is because at that time the straw holds less moisture, making it lighter, easier to cut and more pliable to weave. The Village Council requires 1,200 stalks to be harvested per family each day during the five day cycle. From there mules and trucks transport the stalks to a place where the straw can be separated into strands. The outer sheath of each stalk it stripped off and not used in the making of the hats. The inner fingers of the stalks are split into dozens of yard long ribbon-like strands and are still attached to the leaf stem. After the proper preparation the stalks then go into a vat of boiling water for one hour and then are hung out to dry.
Once the straw is dry, it’s ready to be woven by a master weaver. Two generations ago there were approximately 2000 master weavers. However, today there are only approximately 20 master weavers. The weave is very specific and if you know what you’re looking for you can pick out an authentic panama weave. The easiest way to tell is by looking at the top of the hat. It should always be woven in a circular pattern and usually somewhere on the inside of the hat you may see the official Ecuador stamp. The edges of a high quality panama hats are always woven back into the brim, never trimmed and then sewn like lesser quality panama hats.
Once the Weave is complete, the straw for the hats is then washed and pummeled. This process provides regularity, flexibility and suppleness to the straw. The sides and the crown of the hat are then beaten to even out the straw even further (another art unto itself). Once that’s finished, the straw can be dyed various colors, if chosen, or bleached or left its natural color. The most common colors of panama hats are natural or bleach white. Once the color of the straw is decided, it’s blocking and ironing time. Not all Panama Hats are ironed and blocked in Ecuador anymore in this modern day age. For instance, a hats company can order the woven panama straw and then perform the ironing and blocking process themselves. This saves money for many companies and also saves master Ecuadorian weavers lots of time. The ironing process removes undulation in the straw. Hand blocking is then done with steam and an iron or a steam press to produce many familiar styles such as gambler and planters.
The process of making a Panama hat can take 2-3 months to complete depending on the artisan weaver. Each hat is weaved and blocked by a single artisan. Of course there are different levels of quality of panama hats. In Ecuador there are two main places that produce panama hats. The city of Montecristi is where the highest quality hats are made, known as “superfinos”. What that means is that these hats will have up to 1600-2000 weaves per square inch and should be able to hold water as well as pack up enough to be able to fit through a wedding band. Those are the Panama hats that cost thousands of dollars. The other city in Ecuador is Cuenca. This city produces a more economical alternative, producing hats with 100 or fewer weaves per square inch, making it possible for everyone to own their very own Panama hat.
From the fields of Cadeate, up through the Panama Canal, to the windows of NYC and the shelves of Hats in the Belfry, to the heads of the most fashionable, Panama Hats are classic and are some of the most beautifully hand crafted products created in the world. Unfortunately, some fear that the Ecuadorian Panama Hat industries will only continue for the next 15-20 years due to cheap imitation from china. So don’t be fooled, and don’t except anything but true quality in your Panama hat.