What to Know
A Panama is more than a mere hat
by M.G. McBride
A Panama hat is no ordinary straw hat. Given the proper shaping, its dents or grooves, angles and sweeping, wide brim -- with or without curl -- is more a reflection of a wearer's personality than a whimsical fashion statement.
That's what S. Grant Sergot (pronounced Sir-go) has in mind when he fits a Panama hat to the person buying it. Fitting a hat includes taking the raw, unblocked hatand molding it to a specific shape with a certain color trim added. Or, if it's "you," a trim embellished with a feather or silk flower.
"I work off classic lines," said Sergot, owner of Optimo Custom Hat Works at 47 Main St. in Old Bisbee. "The hat has to match the personality of the wearer and its use. It's important to match the shape of the hat to the body form."
Sergot has men's and women's variations of the fedora: the Indiana Jones, itself a modified fedora; the Tom Mix cowboy hat; and an original ladies' version called a Tami Mix.
He also can shape a modified version of a fedora he accentuates with a flamboyant curve along the brim that was inspired by the Saturday morning cartoon character Darkwing Duck.
"When you put on a Panama, there's a confidence instilled because of it's fineness," Grant said.
That fineness is determined by the quality of the straw used and the tightness of the weave. The weave is graded from one to 20. Sergot likened the texture of a grade 2 hat to burlap, a grade 10 to fine cotton, a grade 14 to linen, a grade 17 to silk and a grade 20 to the smoothness and texture of paper. The prices of the hats increase with each rise in grade.
Sergot said the Panama hats he sells range from $20 for an unblocked hat to $3,000 for a grade 17. He said the higher quality hats can sell for as high as $9,000 in Sante Fe, N.M., and $15,000 in San Francisco.
Contrary to what the name implies, Panama hats are not made in Panama, but Ecuador.
According to "The Panama Hat Trail," a book by Tom Miller, the Isthmus of Panama was the major trade corridor for South American goods, including Ecuadorian straw hats, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Miller, who lives part-time in Bisbee, shows in his book that gold seekers on their way to California from the East Coast bought the straw hats in the mid-1800s. Workers building the Panama Canal 50 years later wore the hats to shield against the tropical sun. The hats were named for the country where they could be bought, not where they were made, according to Miller.
Miller said Friday that toquilla straw that grows in the hilly areas off the coast of Ecuador is used to weave the hats.
Mestizo women of Latin and Indian origin typically weave the lower quality hats, while the higher quality ones are woven by men in small towns near Quito and in Montecristi, he said.
In his book, Miller described the hats woven in Montecristi as "silken treasures, sleek and supple, each one an admirable example of delicate handicraft."
But Miller said these higher quality hats are in danger of not being made, because weavers can make more money in other ways.
Depending on the type of toquilla straw and weave, a hat can take from two to three days or two to three months to weave, Miller said. Weavers get from 60 cents to $50 or $60 for a hat that takes several months to make. "By this time, it's no longer a hat but a work of art," Miller said of the finer quality Panamas, for which weavers get paid more money.
Miller said middlemen pay the weavers for the hats. Each time the hats move through the process on their way to a retail outlet in another country, such as the United States, the price about doubles, he said. A middleman may pay a weaver 65 cents for a hat that is sold for $35 in the United States, he said.
In a twist of irony between a Third World country and more developed countries -- where Panama hats are boughtto add a dash of class to one's appearance -- Miller said Ecuadorians, too, wear hats made of toquilla straw. But the Ecuadorians who wear these hats, typically shellacked for more durable wear, are identified as being on the low end of the social structure. "Just above the bottom," he said.
Sergot acknowledges the Ecuadorian weavers on the inside of his hats. The bands read, "Original Panamas from Ecuador." He said the weavers should be considered art treasures in Ecuador, and that he would like to somehow effect a change in how the weavers are paid to ensure weaving of the higher quality hats doesn't die out.
Like a sculptor, Sergot finds a challenge and creative outlet in taking an unblocked hat and giving it a form to match the wearer.
"Each weaver has their own capabilities," said Sergot, who shapes the hats at this workshop on a ranch outside of Bisbee. "I never get bored, because they're all woven by different people. Each hat has different characteristics and limitations of what can be done to it."
Allison Hardesty works with Sergot and is learning the craft of shaping the hats. "It's his first love. He needs to do it exclusively," Hardesty said of Sergot.
Sergot's love of Panama hats began when he bought a high quality hat at an estate sale in the early 1970s. Before he found that one, he had been steaming felt hats over a kettle and shaping them in a mule barn near the Grand Canyon for dude wranglers. "For grins and beer," Sergot said.
But the Panama hat he acquired intrigued him. Not knowing how to shape it, he tried different techniques using a carved melon to simulate the shape of a human head and a child's potty-training seat to curl the brim with. "There's no guide book," Sergot said. "I figured out how to form it, but it was a mess."
But today, the shapes of Sergot's hats are as much an art form as the woven hats themselves. "So many people have asked me to start signing them, so I started signing them," he said.
For Sergot, the payoff is seeing customers' self-perceptions transformed when they walk out the door wearing their Panama hats.
Sergot recalled a stoop-shouldered customer who wanted to buy a Panama hat with a wide brim that turned down in the front, so he could hide under it.
Sergot said he did turn down the brim in the front, but just past the man's peripheral vision. The rest of the brim was left flat and straight, denoting strength and confidence with wing-tip pencil curls to give it panache and flair, he said.
"He walked out a whole different person. I don't think he realized he was strutting," Sergot said. "People's self-perception can change with a properly styled hat. Some people will say, 'I don't look good in a hat.' I say, 'Let me work with you.' A properly fitted and styled hat can instill confidence and give one a sense of elan and panache."