Right off the top(hat) let’s clear one thing up. The Panama Hat is NOT from Panama. It is from Ecuador, and specifically originally from Monticristi, a small village in the mountains near the port city of Manta.
In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a man who in many ways is considered the grandfather of the Panama hat, arrived in Montecristi to make his name and fortune in Panama hats. He set up a Panama hat business with his goal being exportation. Most of the exports went through Panama, thus the name.
But hat making had been an indigenous occupation long before Alfaro arrived and exploited it. Since the early 1600’s coastal and mountain Ecuadorian peoples had steadily perfected the art of hat weaving.
Known locally as Toquillo Straw Hats, Panama hat construction uses the toquillo palm, which is not actually a palm but a palm-like plant. In fact, you might recognize this plant as many in the USA have this as a houseplant. I have had several over the years.
Loved for the lightweight texture and breathability, Panama Hats are more popular now than ever before, particularly to wear in hot weather. The authentic hand-made hats from Ecuador can take months to construct, and depending on the intricacy of the design can sell for retail in the USA from $200 to $10,000. Purchased direct from the weaver in Ecuador (before the multiple middle man markups) hats cost much less, anywhere from $50-$300.
We watched a couple of local weavers in the mountain village of Monticristi. It was fascinating to see the process. Most of the expert weavers are women. They stand for hours hunched over a wooden support that they lean their breast bone on. I’m sure these women have a permanent bruise on their sternum. From this position they weave the hats, basically from an upside down position, while the hat is right side up.
We watched one hat under construction. The young woman had been working on it for two months. She told us, through an interpreter, she expected to be done with it in another month. The quality of the hat comes from the tightness of the weave. Two styles of weave are most commonly used; the Cuenca weave has the appearance of a herringbone pattern and utilizes slightly more straw; the Brisa weave has the appearance of small diamonds/squares. This type of weave is less intricate but perceived as finer than the Cuenca weave by some as it is lighter. Both are very beautiful and the hat we watched being made was absolutely magnificent with its intricate design. Perfection. She expected to sell it for $300.
Of course today you can buy imposter Panama hats from Taiwan. They look about the same and cost decidedly less. But if you want the real thing from the real and authentic Ecuadorian artists, be sure you are buying a real Panama Hat.
I did not buy one, since I wouldn’t be able to take care of it during our full-time travels. Although designed to fold up with out damage, I still didn’t want to take a chance. I expect to return to Ecuador in a couple years and I will surely buy one. A quality purchase that will last a lifetime.
I’m so glad I got to witness this art form first hand. A wonderful cultural, artistic experience I will not forget.
(Source for this blog Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_hat).