When is a Panama hat a Panama hat?
The story of Panama straw hats dates back all the way to President Theodore
Roosevelt’s trip to Panama at the turn of the 20th century, or at least that is
how they were named. It is because of his visit that these hats were named
“Panama” hats, although the bodies are actually woven from Ecuador. Regardless
of where the hat originated, or where the name came from (there
is a ton of history about the Panama hat online), the word Panama is perhaps
one of the most popular used phrases in our shops and online today.
We consistently have customers coming in and asking specifically for a “panama
hat”. The term Panama is often used to describe what could be any generic straw
hat on the shelves. We always try to inform and educate the customer on what
exactly a Panama hat is. This fall we actually saw a cheaply made felt hat that
was named “Felt Panama Hat” on the Banana Republic website. While we are a fan
of the brand and love the clothes, this simply isn’t what the hat is. Our hunch
is that the vast majority of their customers will inevitably think they are
buying a Panama hat from them though.
These are some of the things we have learned throughout our 35 years in retail
about Panama hats. We hope this helps you find the right Panama.
1. A Panama isn’t just a straw hat. It is specific to Ecuador, and has a very
specific weave to it. There is a grading system to Panama hats, but it is very
subjective. People will say just about anything to make you think it is a fine
Panama (even if it isn’t). Disregard the grading system and look for quality of
2. Most Panama hats have an official seal of Ecuador burned into the interior of the
body, but this can be very hard to read if the body has been bleached or dyed
after the mark was made. It is possible to be a Panama and not see the mark on
the inside of the hat, although we have never seen this mark on a hat that isn’t
3. Panama hats have a very distinctive weave pattern. This weave pattern starts
at the top of the crown and then weaves outward in a circular pattern. The
better quality Panamas have thinner fibers and a tighter weave patterns. This
takes longer to produce, but also gives the hat a softer more pliable feel. Some
of the highest quality Panama hats often feel like cloth.
4. Panamas can come in just about every color, pattern and shape. The one thing to note about the material is that it is very organic and natural in appearance and generally smooth. Other straws and summer hats are made from paper, hemp, coconut, seagrass, raffia and synthetic materials. These other hats can still be very high quality weaves and expensive, but that still doesn’t make them a Panama. Panama is made from the Toquilla straw plant.
5. Panama hats are wooven in Ecuador, but can be blocked and finished just
about anywhere. This is also the case for other materials like Harris Tweed.
Just because it states that the hat was made in the U.S.A. or Italy doesn’t mean
it isn’t a Panama. It just means that the straws bodies were shipped to other
countries for the production and finishing.
6. In many cases we have seen that Panama hats finished in countries outside
of Ecuador are of better quality. Why? Because these manufacturers in outside
countries are simply better hat makers and have better quality control
standards. The artists and craftspeople that weave these Panama fibers usually
don’t have anything to do with making the actual hats.
7. Yes, there is such a thing as a Montecristi hat, but be very careful
before buying one and ask as many questions as possible before buying it.
Montecristi hats are made from a specific region in Ecuador, but more
importantly they are the finest quality Panamas available. These hats have very
fine fibers and are woven super tight. In some cases it can take one of these
expert weavers up to a year to make the Montecristi body. That’s a lot of time!
8. Panamas don’t last forever. They are in fact organic material that will
dry out and crack over the long run. Some people can get years out of a Panama
hat if they know how to handle it. Don’t grab or pick the hat up by the crown or
the pinch (top of the hat). Almost all cracking comes from this. Instead pick
the hat up and hold the hat by the brim. Not pinching the crown will ensure you
get the maximum life out of the hat.
9. Expect to pay more for a good Panama hat. Each hat is a one of a kind. We
have heard that 1 out of every 2 Montecristi’s woven are scrapped before
becoming a fine quality hat. This is because they are just so hard to weave. The
length of time it takes to weave a Panama compounded with the relatively small
amount of people weaving them makes it a very specialty item. In Panama as with
everything, you get what you pay for.
10. The amount of Panama bodies available in the market today is much less
than there were ten years ago. This is a highly trained skill that just isn’t
being taught to the younger generations. While there are younger weavers, the
amount of them are shrinking and the seasoned weavers are getting old and
retiring. Panama’s (particularly the finer ones) will likely continue to become
harder and harder to find over the decades.
PS – I have yet to find a Panama with a “Made in China” label in it. Not that
it will never happen, but the cost to transport the bodies to, and the quality
of hats being produced probably make it cost prohibitive. We’ll update this if
we ever do see a Panama hat blocked or finished in China.