Handwoven Shantung - The “Panama” Of The Far East
Valued for their fine weaves, durability and feather-light weight, shantung straw hats have earned their position in the hat industry as a worthy alternative to the long coveted panama straw. Crafted from a flat woven sheet, these hats are traditionally bleached to an almost pure white (comparable to the meat of an almond), but are also available in a wide variety of hues and tints. Though shantung hats are often believed to be fashioned from natural straw, these sleekly woven hats are actually crafted from a high performance paper that is rolled into a yarn to imitate straw. This allows it to be woven into a sheet and blocked into a desired silhouette.
It is also a common misnomer that shantung paper yarn is made from rice paper. In fact, there are no papers currently being made out of rice. Traditionally, papers made out of kozo, gampi and mitsumata, utilized rice starch in their production process, likely coining the name “rice paper.” Historically, kozo, gampi and mitsumata were used to make a high performance paper, known as “washi.” The technique was invented by the chinese during the first century. But in 610 ad, it was the japanese who perfected the art of making “washi” after korean buddhist monks acquired the skill from the chinese and introduced it to japan.
Since then, “washi,” literally meaning “japanese paper,” has become appreciated worldwide for its unique traits. While washi is finer and lighter in weight than any other paper, it is also stronger. Due to its availability and tensile strength, washi is now often being created from the manila hemp plant. Native to the phillipines, the manila plant can also be found in other parts of the world, but a majority of the world’s production still remains in the phillippine islands.
Back in the mid-1900’s, natural panama straw became scarce and put a strain on the hat industry. In desperate need of a replacement, manufacturers were introduced to washi. Over time, the material proved itself as a suitable and reliable alternative to panama straw, resulting in washi being dubbed the “shantung panama” by the hat industry. Confusing, yes, but an excellent way to describe the lesser known shantung hat to consumers. With that said, Shantung has more than proven its worth within the industry. Today, shantung is the primary choice for cowboy hat manufacturers and it dominates over 65% of the hat market.
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