They’re called Panama Hats, but they originated in Ecuador. In the early 1600s, hat-weaving emerged from many small Andean villages along the coast of this South American country.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, these woven hats increased in popularity. Eventually, the trade moved beyond its originating borders to make Panama Hats a great choice for many people across the world.
But what makes them so unique? It is crucial to learn how Panama Hats are made to understand its beauty on a deeper level. Keep reading to learn more about Panama Hats and why they are so special!
Where Are Panama Hats Made?
While other countries make their own versions of straw hats, authentic Panama hats are made in Ecuador. Many of its coastal provinces began weaving these unique hats in the early 1600s. Initially, they called them “Montecristi”, “jipijapa,” or “toquilla” hats.
Panama Hats from Montecristi are among the most famous, as that is the Ecuadorian town where the hats originated. However, the art of weaving these now extends from coast to mountain regions of the country.
The term Panama Hat came much later, during the early efforts of a global market expansion with the Panama Canal.
Why are they called Panama Hats?
During the mid-1800s Gold Rush, lots of Americans went through Panama to get to California.
Many of them discovered Panama Hats during these travels. They were bought while docked at the Panama Canal, which is why they earned the name “Panama Hat.”
Later on, and to further solidify the name, Theodore Roosevelt was photographed multiple times wearing a Panama Hat while inspecting the Panama Canal. His picture traveled the news marking a new Panama Hat trend among men and women.
Why Are Panama Hats Unique?
The Panama Hat is unique for several reasons. They may look like other straw hats at a distance; however, upon closer look, there are significant differences.
For example, the Panama hat boasts a laid-back sophistication and ease for anyone wearing it. It is woven from a toquilla palm’s young leaves, also known as the Jipijapa plant. This material is both strong and lightweight with a beautiful natural color once dried.
The Panama Hat is well-known for keeping you feeling cool with its unique and distinctive weave. This features alone, make it a popular and classic style for tropical and summer travel.
Some of its famous fans throughout history are:
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Humphrey Bogart
- Orson Welles
- Gary Cooper
- Galo Plaza
How Panama Hats Are Made
The straw used to make Panama Hats comes from the toquilla palm leaves. The plant’s scientific name is Carludovica Palmata. It grows along the coast of Ecuador, mainly in the Manabi province.
It is the unopened leave shoots of the plant that gets used for hat making.
Harvesters begin the process by using sharp blades to cut the leaf shoots. This is an art form in itself, as they must choose these at the perfect time. To keep the plants alive, harvesters only cut the shoots they need. As a result, there are no devastating effects on the forest.
Fibers into Straw
Once the palm has been harvested and bundled, the next step is to open them up to reveal long, grass-like strands. Just like a head of romaine lettuce, the outer shoots are tougher. These get peeled further to reveal lighter-colored, more tender parts of the shoots. These are the ones that become the toquilla straw (tallos) for Panama hats.
Tough pieces get discarded and the selected strands get cooked in boiling water. During this part of the process, they become pale yellow and a few hours later these are hung to dry.
This process enables each strand to dry quickly into a flexible straw. Some of these straws get used as-is, but most of them go through a bleaching process to produce colorless straw. These are used to make the legendary white Panama Hat.
Beginning Weaving the Hat
Typically, it’s an independent artisan who buys the harvested straw from the harvester. Seasoned weavers can easily pick the best pieces in a bundle and discard any that don’t meet their years of knowledge standards.
Once they cut the straw evenly, the weaver begins by hand-weaving a small circular mat. The mat forms the center of the top of the hat. Gradually, they add more and more pieces until the small mat becomes a flat, large plantilla, which forms the top of the Panama hat.
The Crown and Brim
Once the plantilla is formed, it gets transferred to a special stand. The stand allows the weaver to keep the hat base in place while adding woven sides to the crown.
From there, they weave the brim out all along the hat’s circumference. While leaning over the weighted piece, the weaver then works from the edge of the plantilla and down to the end of the crown, and then out to the edge of the hat’s brim.
The weaving is done entirely by hand and can take months, depending on the hat size and the weaver’s skill.
When the weaver is done, there will be a spray of straw around the brim. Typically, a new expert will take care of finishing the brim. To finish the brim, every piece of straw gets carefully woven back toward the hat. They use this technique to create a uniform edge that keeps the weave secure and gives the edge a polished look.
The Panama Hats Grades
Many sellers use numbers to grade their hats, different grading systems are used to come up with a number for these. For example, fino, fino-fino, and super fino are common descriptions used to differentiate Montecristi Panama Hat grades. They translate to fine, very fine, and super fine.
These metrics could get confusing at times and usually is more accurate the finer these get. The price of a super fine Montecristi Panama Hat could range from $5000 to $20000.
There is a way, however, that we can measure the quality of more affordable Panama Hats. These can range from $50 up to $500 or more depending on the finishes. To make sure that you are getting a good quality Panama Hat, we recommend observing how tight the weave is. Also, the amount of weaves per square inch or “puntos” points per square inch (PPI) on your hat should range from no less than 75 (PPI) to getting a well-made hat.
There are no authoritative guidelines, so there are no hard and fast rules across the board. It is always recommended to rely on a good source to buy one of these beauties.
Where to Get Panama Hats
There are many places that sell what they claim to be Panama Hats. Unfortunately, many sellers play with the words and try to sell machine-made hats as “Panama Hat Style” hats for a fraction of the price. It is important to look for a reputable seller with substantial descriptions of their products.
Always look for handmade hats made in Ecuador, using only natural fibers and materials from the “Toquilla Palm”. Also, how many weaves per square inch do they offer with detailed pictures to recognize the weaving consistency? When you find a hat you love, follow this hat care guide to ensure your Panama Hat lasts as long as possible.
If you need any help purchasing an Original Panama Hat, contact us. We will be happy to help you find the Panama Hat that you will wear through your summers and vacations for years to come.