Contrary to popular belief and what the name may suggest Panama hats are actually from Ecuador. This misnomer arose back in 1849 during the California gold rush when many people travelled from the East Coast and Europe via Panama. While en route many bought these sturdy but lightweight hats which were in fact made in Ecuador. The hat also caught the eye of a Frenchman who took it back to Europe and consequently caused a sensation at the Paris Exposition in 1855. It became yet even more prominent when years later during the construction of the Panama canal, workers as well as officials and visitors were seen and photographed wearing the hats. Perhaps the most famous being President Theodore Roosevelt who was viewing the construction in 1906. The canal opened in 1914 and by then these straw hats from Ecuador were known world wide as Panama hats. They protected many heads from the strong tropical sun and although the name is misleading about the origins, the canal publicity meant this hat from Ecuador became world renowned.
The hats are made from the plant, Paja Toquilla, which is indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador and has been woven in the Andean region for the last 6000 years since the Inca Empire. Two particular areas are still synonymous with the hats today and where the majority and the best are made, Montecristi and Cuenca. They are two very special valleys where the micro climate is perfect for growing the paja toquilla straw.
Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 1600s and exploited the local population to make the hats for profit. During the 1850s a hat factory was opened in Cuenca in an attempt to help the economic woes. Apprenticeships at this factory became compulsory and therefore the industry quickly developed. As a result the weaving of these hats became one of the main sources of income for the region. Sadly again this lead to many workers being exploited by middlemen looking to make a quick buck.
Although it’s popularity declined in the post war period, today the Panama hat is having somewhat of a renaissance. This can partly be attributed to people watching more period dramas and seeing for themselves how elegant and sophisticated the hats look.
Hopefully this popularity will mostly benefit the highly skilled and patient people who make the genuine article. The techniques have been passed down from generation to generation and for many craftsmen it is more than just a job but a way of life.
The best quality hats can take weeks and weeks to weave and can cost hundreds of dollars to purchase. You can buy real hand woven Panamas for around $50 which are not so fine and haven’t taken so long to weave. The much cheaper versions are probably not even hand woven but are made by machines and won’t be made from toquilla straw. It is easy to see and feel the difference and a real Panama hat from Ecuador will last a long time if cared for properly.
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