Every country in Latin America makes straw hats. Colombia’s coffee region has its famous straw hat. But even more famous is Panama’s straw hat. Bright white, light and airy, the Panama hat has always been linked to whitewashed seaside resorts and green tropical paradises. But everyone has always credited the hat to the wrong country.
The Panama hat didn’t originate in Panama, it was created and has always been made in Ecuador.
Beginning in the early 1600s, hat weaving evolved along the Ecuadorian coast and in small mountain towns around Cuenca. In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, considered the grandfather of the Panama hat, arrived in the small town of Montecristi on the coast of Ecuador setting up a hat manufacturing business – its main objective exportation. Cargo ships from Guayaquil and Manta were filled with his hats and sent around the world.
South American goods were shipped – first up to the Isthmus of Panama then reloaded onto boats bound for Asia, America and Europe. The hats acquired a name reflecting their original point of international sale – Panama and not Ecuador.
Alfaro’s son was visiting California in the late 1800s and noticed the gold rush prospectors toiling in the hot sun. He saw that the prospectors needed a good hat for the sun and ordered 220,000 hats from
Ecuador. They quickly sold out. More were ordered and business prospered.
In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction site of the Panama Canal. He was photographed wearing a Panama hat. And the caption under the published photo read: “the president and his Panama hat.” The hat’s association with Panama became irreversible.
The Panama hat is considered the most lightweight and pliable hat in the world. It is made from the leave shoots of the toquilla palms that grow around the village of Montecristi near the port town of Manta on Ecuadors’ Pacific coast. The palms are boiled and dried and the finished straw is woven into hats by experienced hat makers. Most of the factories are concentrated around Montecristi and in the highland town of Cuenca.
The Higher the Quality – The Higher the Price
The quality of the Panama hat is defined by the tightness of its weave; the tighter the weave the better and more valuable the hat. The two most common types of weaves are the Cuenca and Brisa. The Cuenca uses more straw but the Brisa weave is much finer and the hat lighter. There are four classification of hats, depending on the tightness of the weave. They range from a standard hat which goes for $10 in Ecuador to superfino which will fetch up to $300 per hat. That’s if one buys it in Ecuador – at home one can expect to pay much more.
The more common weaves take a hatter one day to make, and the most finely woven hats can take up to 6 months per hat.
They say in Montecristi a superfino can hold water and when the hat is tightly rolled up it can be pulled through a wedding ring.
Another famous straw hat is the Tamsui. It was originally made in Formosa, now Taiwan, to compete with the Panama hat in the early 20th century. These straw hats retained their whiteness, were washable and could be folded and carried around without damage. Tamsui hats eventually replaced the costlier Panama hat in east Asia and remain popular today.
There are Panama hat museums in the center of the city of Cuenca down by the river on Calle Larga 10-41 y Padre Aguirre. There’s another Panama hat museum and in the village of Montecristo. Montecristo is just a half hour bus ride outside of Manta. Take a cab to Montecristi’s main square. Here there are a number of hat shops and factories. But the hat museum is a short cab ride further up in the hills overlooking Montecristi.
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