Panama Hats - The History and Making process

What makes our genuine Panama hats so special?  Read on to find out...

Panama Hats - a History

Paja Toquilla, indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador, is the plant from which Panamas are woven. Their history can be traced as far back as the Incas who were the first to weave hats from this fibrous plant.

During the American-Spanish war (1898), the US Government ordered from Ecuador 50,000 "sombreros de paja toquilla", as they are correctly called, for their troops heading for the Caribbean. But earlier, in 1855, a Frenchman living in Ecuador, took some to the World Exposition in Paris. The finest was presented to the great French dandy, Napoleon III. From that time on, the "toquilla" has reigned supreme over the crowned heads of Europe.

In England, much encouraged by royal patronage, the panama quickly attained the enviable position as the most fashionable summer hat: a position it has retained to the present day.

The Making Process

One important feature of the panama is that every hat is unique. Their weaving is a cottage industry carried on in the simple homes of ordinary country folk in the districts of Manabi and Azuay. It is a unique skill handed down from generation to generation. These craftsmen can produce a hat in one or two days. However, the finest, from the towns of Biblian and Montecristi can take up to five months to weave.

The greatest weavers work only by the light of the moon or when the sky is overcast. This is because the weaving has to be done in a humid atmosphere.  Constantly dipping their sharp pointed fingers in water, they split the fibre razor thin, and with all the virtuosity of a spinning wheel, plait ring after ring of palm into fabric so soft and dense that it equals silk. The hats are then pummelled, trimmed, groomed, scrubbed and branded with "fabricado en Ecuador".

The finest quality panamas have a silky, creamy smooth texture in which the weave is barely perceptible, but if held up to the light, a spiral of rings will be seen spanning out from the apex of the crown.

These concentric rings, or "vueltas" indicate where new strands have been started in the weaving process: it is the number of "vueltas" that determines the quality of the panama. In the cheaper and most common quality that might take a day or two to weave, there may be up to ten "vueltas" whereas in the finer quality, or "finos", there could be up to twenty. However, in the very finest quality the number could be as high as forty.

We are proud to support the artisans in this age-old traditional process of making panama hats.