Panama hats are the most misleadingly named item in the world. These distinctive hats are actually made in Ecuador – and have been for centuries. The name comes from an entrepreneurial businessman who realized that the hats were perfect for the influx of people crossing the isthmus of Panama on their way to the west coast of the U.S. in the mid-19th century for the gold rush. He had a ready made market and since they were in Panama, why not give them that name, and it stuck.
Making these hats is truly an art. After the palm straw is sifted to create evenly distributed selections, it is then intricately woven by hand, never with a machine. Hours and hours later, the hats take their form. From there, the hats are usually sent to be shaped and finished in a larger workshop. Some are mass produced for the tourist markets around Ecuador, but the true craftsmen can spend months weaving a single hat. Check out this story of a man who is known for the world’s finest panama hat.
There are two main areas for Panama hats in Ecuador – Montecristi along the coast and Cuenca. Montecristi is the true historical heart of the craft, but it has been somewhat pushed aside by the more commercial ventures in Cuenca. Most of the hats sold in Cuenca are actually handwoven by villagers spread out around the outskirts of the city and then purchased, or originally commissioned, by the big hat vendors. We went to the ‘factory’ of one of the biggest vendors in Ecuador, Homero Ortega, to see the process firsthand.
The key thing to remember is that the process actually involves several people, not just the weaver, and each of these individuals have a special skill set crucial for the outcome. There are the people who prepare the straw, shape the finished weave, iron the brim, and sew on the ribbons. Traditionally this would have all been done in a small workshop, probably within one family unit, but now that this is such a huge international industry, the finishing touches are frequently done at centres such as the one we toured.
Homero Ortega was a nicely laid out location with a small museum area where they told us the history and showed us the more traditional means for creating the hats. Then we saw their shaping, blanching, and ironing shop. Using molds, the hats are shaped into the correct sizes and then a high heat pressurized machine sets that shape before the brim is ironed out. It is all very mechanical, but the basis of the original skill is still being applied.
After seeing more of the process, you have a chance to visit the showroom where you are tempted by countless beautiful designs. Here there were hats ranging from the traditional white, to the not so traditional pink. These hats are very stylish in Ecuador and worldwide and so the variety needs to match the market.
We each tried on several hats before deciding on our final selections. One of us in particular was super happy with our purchases. Now we are ready for the equatorial sun!