Passport to Panama

by Miranda Hilderbrand

As summer is heating up and the sun is shining bright, you may be looking for some new headgear that will offer you protection from the sun, breathability and will make you look super snazzy, be you a man or a woman. Our favorite hat for summer, hands down, is the panama straw. This near 500-year-old classic is sure to turn heads for the upcoming season.

Not only is the Panama a fantastic and beautiful hat, it has one of the most unique and intriguing histories of all headwear with the most deceiving name. Despite its title, all true Panama hats are handwoven from the straw of the toquilla palm in Ecuador yet it is one hat that is known for its point of export rather than its manufacturer. Their popularity rose in the mid-1800s as North American traders took route to Panama as their main link to South America and saw many tradesmen wearing lightweight, durable straw hats. The hats became such a commodity at this bustling trade corner of the world that they simply became known as Panama hats.

In Ecuador, Panama hats are known as sombreros de paja toquilla, or “hats of toquilla straw”. This straw is indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador and is the plant from which all panamas are woven. Their history can be traced back to
the 16th century with the Incas, who were the first to weave hats using the the paja toquilla. When Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors arrived in Ecuador in 1526 many of the inhabitants of the coastal areas were wearing headwear made of woven straw. This started a landslide of popularity for these curious straw hats.

Hat-weaving in Ecuador evolved as a cottage industry all along the coast. Panama hats predominantly come from two main cities in Ecuador: Montecristi, a coastal city in Manabi and Cuenca, a city in the Andes Mountains. It has been said that “better hats come from Montecristi but more hats come from Cuenca”.

While the topic of panama hat quality is heavily disputed, it has become widely believed that the true test of quality lies in the number of weaves per square inch. Fewer than 100 is considered to be of lower quality while some hats can have 1600-2500 weaves per square inch (which looks like woven linen) would be a panama of the highest quality. It is not unheard of for some of these styles to sell for thousands of dollars a piece. Now that is a serious hat that will serve you well for years!

One thing that I discovered in my study of the Panama hat is the importance of the lunar cycle in their creation. It is said that straw cutters schedule their monthly harvest for the five day period after the moon reaches its waning quarter. It has been explained that the straw holds less moisture and is much lighter, which in turn makes it much easier to cut and much more pliable to weave. Wielding machetes, workers harvest the toquilla straw with each stalk yielding dozens of yard-long, ribbon like strands of straw. These strands are then boiled in water for an hour and are hung out to dry. Once the drying process is complete, the hat bodies are meticulously hand-woven, a process that can range from several days to as much as several months per hat. The hats are then refined, edged, smoothed and even sometimes bleached. The panama hats then travel to hatters all over the world to be blocked, stiffened, shaped and sold.

The Panama comes in many shapes and forms, perhaps the most famous being the wide-brimmed fedora. Here at Hatbox we strive to meet all of your Panama needs carrying these hand-woven treasures that were designed by such famous hatters as Stetson, Biltmore, Christy’s of London and Borsalino of Italy. We also import directly from the families who weave these timeless classics.

This hat is quite the go to hat with many famous men from Hollywood’s Golden Age such as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and more recently Sean Connery and Sir Anthony Hopkins donning them. The hat also made famous appearances in such classic films as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and To Kill a Mockingbird. Hopkins wore one sinisterly cocked in the final scene of the film The Silence of the Lambs as he makes a final chilling call to Clarice telling her he is “going to have an old friend for lunch”.

On a brighter note it was also a favorite hat of many political icons including Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, who when touring the Panama Canal was viewed by the public (in newsreels) setting firm the title Panama hat. Most Americans to this day think the Panama hat is woven in Panama, so now you know the truth!

Come take a trip to the tropics and find your own gem of hat history at Hatbox: A Modern Haberdashery.

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