What came to be called “Chinese Checkers” in 1928 was actually invented in Germany in 1892 and is not a form of checkers. And French fries, it is believed, originated in Belgium. But when it comes to misnomers, the Panama hat takes the crown, for the hats are actually made in Ecuador. And while, understandably and rightfully, Ecuadorians themselves never refer to the hats as “Panama hats,” but instead as “sombreros de paja toquilla,” the rest of the civilized world calls them Panama hats, oftentimes having no knowledge of the true origin of the hats.
The History of the Panama Hat
In 1526, when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in what is today Ecuador, he encountered the inhabitants of the coastal areas wearing almost-brimless headwear made of woven straw. And those 16th-century straw hats apparently had ancient origins, for ceramic figures from the region dating back to about 4000 B.C.E. depict persons wearing headwear similar to that worn by the Ecuadorians encountered by Pizarro. The Ecuadorian straw hats also resembled the European “toque,” a diminutive hat with a small brim, fashionable during the 16th century. Consequently, the Europeans called the straw used to make the local hats “paja toquilla,” presumably after “toque.”
Beginning as early as the middle of the 1500s, hat-weaving had emerged as a cottage industry all along the Ecuadorian coastline, with hat-weaving and hat-wearing becoming more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even then, however, the hats of highest quality came from what is today the Province of Manabi. And in Manabi two towns, Montecristi and Jipijaba, emerged as the leaders of the blossoming hat-weaving industry, both towns gaining a reputation for producing the absolute finest hats.
How a Hat Made in Ecuador Came to be Called “Panama Hat”
In 1835 Manuel Alfaro migrated from Spain to Ecuador, settling in Montecristi and establishing himself in the local hat industry. With the intention of exporting the hats, Alfaro organized the various hat artisans into a viable production system. He sent his hats to the port cities of Guayaquil and Manta, bound for Panama, a crossroads of the Americas and gateway for the East and West. Alfaro also established a trading company in Panama, dealing in hats, cocoa, and pearls. And when the California Gold Rush hit in 1849, the hat of choice for providing protection from the sun while panning gold was the Ecuador-made straw hat.
Also significantly contributing to the misnomer is the fact that during the construction of the Panama Canal (1881-1914), the 48-mile manmade waterway that cuts across the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, many of the laborers donned Panama hats since the lightweight hat provided excellent protection from the sun. But one of the greatest publicity boosts for the now-classic hat occurs in 1906 when a photo of American president Theodore Roosevelt sitting at the controls of a steam shovel during his three-day inspection tour of the construction of the canal was published in seemingly countless newspapers and magazines the world over. The early 20th-century equivalent of “going viral,” the photo helped established the hat as a fashion statement as well as to indelibly associate the hat with Panama.
By 1850, Americans had developed a taste for the Ecuadorian hats—not carrying a label of origin—that were widely sold in Panama. Thus, is was only a matter of time before the hats became known as “Panama hats,” Americans purchasing 220,000 per year in the middle of the 19th century.
Manuel’s son Eloy Alfaro (1842-1912) joined the family enterprise and expanded the company’s prominence and channels of distribution. Eloy would go on to become the first-elected president of Ecuador, serving two terms: 1895-1901 and 1906-1911.
The Making of the Panama Hat
Approximately 20 steps and an equal number of specialists are required to produce one Panama hat from start to finish. The end result, however, is one of the world’s true masculine luxuries: There is a certain, particular, undeniable je ne sais quoi achieved when a gentleman effortlessly wears a Panama hat.
The Paja Toquilla palm-like plant that produces the fine straw from which all genuine Panama hats are made is native to South America. And when gathering the raw material to construct Panama hats, only the best frond-stalks from the best plants are selected. (The stalks are cut in a special way so as to ensure the regrowth of the plant.)
After the stalks are selected, they are beaten on the floor, causing the tubular-shaped stalks, each about four feet long, to transform into long strands or streamers. The tip of a needle is then used to further separate the strands into narrower strips. The beaten stalks are then rapidly boiled then hung out to dry in the sun.
Once thoroughly dried, the strands are placed into an oven to be smoke-bleached, using Sulphur, for approximately 24 hours. After the smoking and bleaching, the strands transform into Paja Toquilla straw.
Once removed from the smoking-oven, the best straw is hand-selected for the finest hats, with the lesser-quality straw set aside for lower-quality hats. The straw is evenly cut; then each strand, using the tip of a thumbnail, is further divided into thinner strands. The thinner the straw, the finer the hat.
The prepared straw is then given to an “armador,” who starts weaving the hat with about 12-18 strands of straw. He or she makes the very center of the “plantilla,” the middle-center of the top of the hat’s crown. While some “armadores” use wooden hat blocks when weaving the “armado,” others weave it free-hand.
After the “armador” has done his or her work, the hat then goes to a “weaver,” the person who does the majority of the work, weaving the crown and brim of the hat. Depending on the fineness of the straw, a weaver may take up to several months to complete a single hat.
Once the weaver has woven the crown and brim to the desired size, the hat is handed over to a “rematador,” who weaves the end of the straws back into the brim of the hat, thereby creating an edge that does not unravel. Once that task has been completed, the hat is regarded as “remate.”
Once “remate,” the hat passes along to an “ajustador,” whose job it is to tighten all the straws around the “remate” edge of the brim.
Thereafter, the hat undergoes its first trimming—and the straw extending beyond the “remate” and “adjustado” brim is clipped off with scissors, thereby facilitating the remaining steps in the hat-making process.
Next comes the “lavado” process, where the hat is washed in soap and water, with the aid of a scrubbing-brush. After all, by this point, the hat has been intimately handled by numerous craftsmen, each working with his bare hands.
After a thorough washing, the hat is allowed to air-dry for 24 hours before it is smoke-bleached in an oven, a process which takes a full day. Once removed from the smoke-bleaching oven, the hat is again trimmed.
“Apaliado” describes the process whereby stacks of about six hats are beaten by hand with the use of a wooden mallet, Sulphur sprinkled onto each hat as it is being stacked for the collective pounding. The purpose of the beating is to make the hat more pliable, improving its overall appearance and feel in the process. Special care must be taken to use the right amount of force, for a hat beaten too hard can be destroyed.
Once “apaliado,” the next step is the “planchado,” where several things occur: The hat is assigned a size based on its woven size; the hat is fit onto a wooden hat block; a flat iron is used to iron-out creases in the hat and to give the hat’s brim a good balance; and a break line is created so as to distinguish the brim from the crown. An ironing cloth is used so as to prevent the straw from coming into direct contact with the hot iron (typically an iron, the heating source of which is hot coals that are deposited into the belly of the iron via its “mouth”).
With the aid of a razorblade, the hat is then given a careful, meticulous, final trim.
Hats are then placed onto wooden hat blocks called “shaping-blocks” so that the milliner can give each hat its final shape (with pinched or creased crowns, etc.) (Whereas the finest hats obtain their final shape by hand, hats of a lesser quality are machine-pressed into their final shape).
The finest Panama hats are sold in wooden boxes of balsa—but so are counterfeits, so caveat emptor!
The Grading of Panama Hats
Today, there are two centers of Panama hat production in Ecuador: The city of Montecristi, and the city of Cuenca, the former situated on the coastline, while the latter is located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Though Cuenca produces more hats, the finest hats come from Montecristi, so much so that many Cuenca-made hats are surreptitiously marketed as of Montecristi origin to unsuspecting customers and to meet international demand. Each year there are more Cuenca-made hats sold as “Montecristi” hats than there are Montecristi hats made for sale as such. (The best Cuenca hats come from the town of Biblián, just outside Cuenca proper. Weaving-wise, they rival the hats of Montecristi and Jipijapa. Color- and texture-wise, however, they are not as refined as their coastal counterparts).
Most Montecristi hats are today woven in towns and villages—such as Pile and Pampas—that are situated close to Montecristi. But many of the finishing steps of the production of the hats still take place in Montecristi proper. (See above, “The Making of the Panama Hat”).
In 1836, in response to the increasing popularity of Panama hats, the city of Cuenca, situated in the Province of Azuay, entered the hat industry. Within a few years, Cuenca workshops were thriving, training all who were willing and able to learn the trade. In 1845 Don Bartolome Serrano of Cuenca hired master weavers from the Province of Maniba (in which the city of Montecristi is situated) and went about the business of upgrading then streamlining Cuenca’s production of Panama hats.
But today, an unhealthy rivalry between Montecristi and Cuenca, fueled partly by outside forces demanding the best Panama hats, has resulted in the degradation of the esteemed reputation of one of the true masculine luxuries: an extra fine Montecristi, Ecuador, Panama hat. Mislabeling, false declarations, unwitting buyers, greed, etc., have all resulted in a misnomer of a misnomer.
In order to protect the integrity of the authentic Montecristi Panama hat, The Montecristi Foundation has taken the necessary steps to establish the equivalent of a protected and guaranteed Denomination of Origin that would promulgate manufacturing-standards for the hats; specify the geographical boundaries within which hats labeled and or marketed as “Montecristi” must be made; establish a recognizable logo of authenticity that should be used by all qualified manufacturers; etc.
In the meantime, there is no universally accepted grading-system for Panama hats. Terms such as “grade 10” to describe the highest grade hat or “Fino Fino” or “Super Fino” to describe top-quality hats from Montecristi mean different things to different hatmakers. And such terms are also deliberately misused by unscrupulous vendors to mislead buyers. The moral of the story, therefore, is that a gentleman desiring top-quality Panama hats should purchase hats made in Montecristi or Jipijapa and sold by the most reputable manufacturers. Brent Black’s The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific (www.BrentBlack.com ) is one of the world’s foremost purveyors of high-quality, authentic Panama hats of Montecristi, Ecuador. The company’s website offers a wealth of information, including how to properly measure one’s head when ordering a hat; how to determine the quality of hats; how to care for Panama hats; etc.
Traditionally, one way to gauge the quality of a hat is to count the number of rings in the center of the crown. The general rule is that when it comes to rings, more is more, not less. But that method of determining hat quality is not foolproof. To the extent that it is employed, however, a hat with 10-12 rings—perhaps best determined by holding the hat up to a light, observing from the inside of the hat—is considered good.
A more reliable way to judge a quality hat is to tediously and painstakingly count the number of weaves in a vertical inch and then the number of weaves in the corresponding horizontal inch, thereafter multiplying the two numbers. A hat with, for example, 30 horizontal weaves per inch and 28 vertical weaves per inch (Rarely do the vertical and horizontal weaves number the same.) would have a weaves-per-inch count of 840. A hat with a weave-per-inch count of 900 would be exceedingly rare. (There was once a hat woven with straw so fine that it was finer than fabric. Because the hat was so labor-intensive, it has disappeared, the weavers who wove such hats long dead).
But there is more to an exquisite Panama hat than number of weaves—somewhat the adage, “It’s not size; it’s how you use it….” The quality of the weave is also or paramount importance. Most lay persons can see the difference between a poorly woven hat and an exquisitely woven one. The difference between “very good” and “exquisite,” however, is a much more subtle distinction. Uniformity of color is also more desirable than non-uniformity. At the end of the day, though, the best Panama hats are handmade of natural materials. And as such, every hat will have some minor, even if almost imperceptible, “imperfections” that in many ways add to the charm and uniqueness of the hat. An undyed leather sweatband is preferred.