Everyone has heard of the Panama hat, but few know that they have never been made there (they were just very popular there!) and actually originate from Ecuador. Dashing, debonaire, and definitely functional, Ecuador’s Panama hats earned themselves a spot on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2012. Here we delve into the hat’s origin and the incredible historic technique used in its creation dating back to the early 1600s.
Now, before we get any further, any true Ecuadorian will know this item as something different. The true name for the Western-known ‘Panama’ hat, is actually the Toquilla straw hat, or occasionally the Jipijapa or Montecristi hat. These names are derived from the specific source and single ingredient used to create this headwear – toquilla palm or jipijapa palm. This specific methodology of hat weaving began over 400 years ago in Ecuador. Indigenous people firstly developed the trade as a cottage industry. With popularity, its growth increased, and pretty soon there wasn’t a place along the Ecuadorian coast or the Andean mountain ranges where you couldn’t find a weaver.
One of the first towns to begin weaving this South American straw fedora was Chordeleg Canton, in the Azuay province, located in the Andes. 200 years or so later, a man named Manuel Alfaro traveled to Ecuador, with hopes and dreams of exporting these wide-brimmed beauties for business. The earliest location to receive the exported goods was (shock), the Gulf of Panama! Subsequently, products were shipped to Asia, the Americas, and Europe. In 1906, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed sporting a Panama hat, during a visit to the fabrication of the Panama Canal. Fortunately for Ecuador, this increased attention and worldwide demand for the product.
As we know, the creation of these fedora hats is a long-standing tradition, sparked by the native cultures of Ecuador. Many weavers found today are 3rd, 4th, or even 5th generation artists! The skill is something taught at a young age and practiced into adulthood. Most weavers will generate hats for most of their lives, becoming veterans of their craft and working until they reach old age.
During my most recent vacation to Ecuador, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a 3rd generation weaver, who has been creating Toquilla hats since she was 8 years old! She introduced me to the story behind how they are made, describing how important it is to the indigenous cultures that she carries on the traditional method of crafting, even in the present day.
Panama hats are produced using one single component – toquilla palm. No glue. No artificial additives. In their pure form, the palm leaves found on the toquilla plant are deep green in color. Each plant will be submerged into a safe bleaching fluid for 24 hours. During this time, all the color will be stripped from the leaves, leaving an almost white color remaining. After this, the leaves can be dyed to whatever color the creator desires – you can find hats in bright hues of yellow, red, purple – pretty much anything!
After the coloring process, the leaves will be stripped into specific thicknesses. The thicker the strips, the easier to weave, and therefore the quicker to make. Needless to say, when using finer pieces, the quality of the hat increases. This reflects not only in production time but in price. A superior grade Toquilla hat will be woven tighter and more densely than the cheaper options. Each hat is generated by repeated weaving and blocking techniques, occupying the designer from anywhere between one day to a whole year!
The producer will begin their weaving style in the very center of the hat. The repeated layering is knitted in a circular direction, which is placed over a large mold. This mold will then be followed, repeating the technique, until the final shape of the hat is formed. The woven brim is then hand-tied, the shape is pressed, all imperfections are adjusted and the finishing touches are made. Hats are almost always enhanced with a band for the final touch of style and elegance.
Pure skill and craftsmanship are required for such an art. The classification of quality for the hats is defined as grades. There is huge speculation as to whether or not this nature of labeling should be trusted, as there are no definite guidelines as to what articulates the chosen value. Each supplier will follow its own trademark ways. However, generally speaking, we know that the values bestowed are usually within a very close range to one another (when comparing products), and that the higher the number, the finer the product. Indigenous groups used the same grading method we do today; One inch from the hats’ brim will be measured. The number of cross-weaves or carerras found in that area would then be multiplied by two. This numeric value would then be compared to a grading chart – for example, a grade 20 Panama hat would contain 16 carerras.
Only the most exceptional weavers in South America can create what are known as Montecristis hats (after their birthplace, the town of Montecristi). These rare and excruciatingly detailed items contain around 3000 weaves per square inch. These hats will take as long as one year to build from start to finish, and are truly unrivaled by other production systems. Very few weavers are alive today with the skills and knowledge to create such divine products.
Exported hats will always have a mark-up compared to the produce found in Ecuador. Shopping around can cost you anywhere between $20 – $10,000 depending on the quality and the seller. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, most hatters will receive very little pay in comparison to the up-market value stamped on their creations overseas. Some items can even sell for as much as fifty times the amount the weaver has been compensated, for months and months of dedicated labor. The overall prices are also altering due to mass-production methods from countries such as China. Sadly, most buyers are willing to sacrifice authenticity and quality for cheaper reproductions. This in turn creates a knock-on effect in Ecuador, and to the indigenous populations who wish to preserve the tradition.
Naturally, the best time to buy a Panama hat is when visiting Ecuador – just wait until you get outside of the airport to find a local vendor so you get a better price and the artisans themselves will get more of a cut. Most suppliers will only speak Spanish, so practice your language skills if you want to ask them any questions about their products. Purchasing a hat really is a great way to take home some of Ecuador’s culture and continue the support of local artists. The hats are even designed to be rolled up and stored, perfect for traveling, and especially handy if cruising in the Galapagos islands. Whenever you need it, just take it out, unravel it and it pops right back into shape!
Top Tip: If you are passing through Quito on your trip to Ecuador, maybe stay at the ILLA hotel where they offer guests an incredible demonstration of the history and technique of making ‘Panama’ hats and even get the chance to try weaving for yourself.
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