The Panama hat or just Panama is a brimmed hat that has its origin in ECUADOR. These hat are made from the plaited toquilla straw plant leaves (Carludovica palmata). Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe. For some products, the name of their point of international sale rather than their place of domestic origin stuck, hence “Panama hats.” They’re also known as a Jipijapa, named for a town in Ecuador once a center of the hat trade. Glorified during the 19th century, the Panama has since been considered the prince of straw hats. Ecuadorian national hero and emblematic figure, Eloy Alfaro helped finance his liberal revolution of Ecuador through the export of panamas. The reputation of the hat was established by Napoleon III, Edward VII, and some other aficionados.
Panama hat Quality
Panama hat quality is a heavily disputed subject. There are two main processes in the hat’s creation: weaving and blocking. The best way to gauge the quality of the weave is to count the number of weaves per square inch. Fewer than 100 would be considered low quality. There are many degrees of increasing quality, up to the rarest and most expensive hats, which can have as many as 1600–2000 weaves per square inch; it is not unheard of for these hats to sell for thousands of dollars a piece.
The quality of the weave itself, however, is more important. A high weave count, even an attractive-looking one, does not guarantee a well-woven hat. It is said that a Panama of true quality can hold water and can be folded for storage without damage.
In Montecristi, Ecuador live a handful of master weavers, the creators of the finest straw hats in the world “Montecristi Panama Hats”. Modern day Panama hat design apparently originated by one Francisco Delgado. He lived in the coastal Manabi area of southern Ecuador in the 1700s. Due to the fineness by which the native Americans split the fibers, as with flax, the finest of finest Panamas look like silk. This quality represents many months of work of one individual! In Spanish, the word delgado means thin, and thin are the fibers which make the finest Panama hats. Hats so fine, they almost defy description. Montecristi panama hats are made from toquilla straw, hand-split into strands not much thicker than thread and woven so finely, at first a panama hat appears to be made from linen. Masterpieces of detail, the edges of these panama hats are woven back into the brim never trimmed and sewn like lesser quality panama hats. Each panama hat is woven by a single artisan, hand-blocked, and takes months to complete. Because there are so few master weavers of panama hats left (two generations ago there were 2000 panama hat weavers; today there are about 20 weavers of panama hats), these works of woven art are becoming endangered to the point of disappearing.
After weaving, the hat bodies are washed, pummeled a bit to provide regularity, flexibility and suppleness and dried. The sides and crown are actually carefully beaten (another art unto itself) to even them out, but without damaging the hat. The finishing processes after this are the only semi industrialized part of the Panama hat’s production but are accomplished with hand operated tools or devices at most. The ironing and blocking process begins either in Ecuador or at the site of a blocker and seller overseas and a lot of ironing is done with an old fashioned cast metal iron heated on a stove! Initial ironing of the brim through a cloth is needed to remove undulations. At the last, before blocking, the raw edges of fibers are trimmed from the brim and it is back woven to prevent fraying. Hand blocking with steam and iron or with the use of a steam press produces the familiar pattern styles. The countless Fedora styles, Optimos and the Planters/Gamblers are the most popular block styles.