What to Know
The incomparable - but misnamed - Panama hat
By Tom Miller
I spent three years, off and on, chasing Panama hats all around the Americas and never once traveled to Panama. The reason is simple: Panama hats come not from Panama but from Ecuador, the low-profile country in South America that's known for its natural beauty (the Andes and the Galapagos Islands) and its natural disasters (draught and earthquakes). Panama was the international trading post for South American goods before the 20th century, and Ecuadorian straw hats passing through took on the name of the point of purchase rather than their place of origin. Panama has reaped the goodwill the hats generate, much to Ecuador's distress.
Panama hats accentuate the extremes of the people beneath them and magnify their personalities. Writers like Tom Wolfe and Garrison Keillor gain an extra measure of élan by wearing Panamas. They're easily identifiable in spring and summer women's fashion ads. These straw wonders are a remarkable handicraft, spanning countries, cultures, hemispheres, economies, lifestyles and fashions.
To write The Panama Hat Trail I first traveled to Ecuador's lowland jungle, where every morning barefoot field workers set out from their settlements with machetes and pack mules. They return the same evening, their mules burdened with piles of green toquilla straw. The straw undergoes a primitive process of repetitive boiling and drying until its ready for shipment to a warehouse in the port of Guayaquil and, from there, up to small villages in the Andes.
You and I consider the Panama a stylish accessory. To wear one in the Andes, however, labels you a member of the poorer classes, the Indian and non-Indian peasants, called cholos. These are the people who, since the mid-19th century, have diligently turned toquilla hat weaving into a cottage industry. Their hats are firm, often lacquered for durability, and worn by everyone from toddler to grandparent. In a novel set in Cuenca, a city of more than 150,000 where the hat trade is centered, I read of a newborn girl nicknamed "the little weaver." In the book, a resident claims, "Baby girls are often born with toquilla straw in their hands." Another adds, "With the hat already begun!" In the town of Biblián, I met a woman in her early nineties who, we computed, had woven some 14,000 Panama hats in her lifetime.
From the city of Cuenca to the most obscure and inaccessible towns nearby, women - and some men - weave straw hats as they cook, care for their babies, tend animals, cultivate vegetables, sit and gossip, trudge to market, shop and return home. Cuenca is a formal city, with churches and shadows, cobblestone streets and weather-beaten Indians. A book describes the city thus: "Always cool enough to be mildly invigorating to mind and body, yet never cold, it is unexcelled as a place for dreamy loafing." Cuenca's qualities have held up during the 70 years since that was written. Its weavers still take strands of straw in hand to carefully weave the rosita, the button at the top of the hat, and then add row after row of design until the crown and most of the brim are complete.
A hat can take anywhere from a day to a month or more to complete, depending on the straw, the delicacy of the weave, the skill of the weaver, the pliability of the material and the demands of the marketplace. If you visit Cuenca or the small towns nearby on straw-market day, you see hundreds of weavers clutching their weekly labor by the loose straws that encircle the hats when they're done. At this stage, the Panamas are called hat bodies, and the middlemen who buy them from the weavers for about 60 cents each (except the ones of very high quality) pass them on to the hat factories in Cuenca to complete the outer brim and to bleach, fumigate, dye and shape them before they're exported. In countless conversations with weavers I tried over and over again to elicit some sense of pride in the craftsmanship, but their responses all centered on the necessity of weaving to support their families. Nonetheless, to walk among the wavers on market day as they sell last week's hats and buy enough straw for the next week's is to witness a process more than a century old, an integral step in the trail from a Panama hat's seed to its sale.
The weaver's hats spend a week or so at the Cuenca factories (many of which will open their doors to visitors) before shipment out of the country. The hats range in quality from the comfortable garden variety to high-fashion numbers.
Although Cuenca produces quality Panamas at all levels, Ecuador's very best sombreros de paja toquilla come from Montecristi, a little village near the Pacific coast. Just as the magic name Havana signifies the best in cigars, "Montecristi" translates to the highest standard in the Panama-hat trade. Hats there take longer to weave, cost more to buy, are harder to find. Shoppers can find them since stores usually have some in stock, but the wholesalers must rely on a dwindling number of master weavers in the wooded countryside south of town. The low wage these highly skilled craftsmen are paid discourages the next generation from taking up the same line of work; they can earn more picking crops or finding low-end jobs in the city or even weaving curios and Christmas tree ornaments.
The finest Montecristi can slide through a napkin ring and snap back to its original shape. The extremely rare classics are smooth as silk and fine as linen. Turn them upside down and they'll hold water. Part of the ceremony of giving an unblocked Panama is presenting it cradled in a balsa-wood box with the flag of Ecuador stenciled on top next to the words Montecristi Fino.
Importers are demanding more variety in their Panamas, especially in women's hats, and open-lace weaves and rounder crowns have added to the range already available. But buyer beware: imitation Panamas from the Orient, usually called Shantungs, have crept into the marketplace. These are cheap low-quality look-alikes. Before you buy it, make sure your Panama is handmade in Ecuador.
Most of the hats exported from Montecristi go straight to wholesalers and retailers. The bundles from Cuenca often go to major hat factories in the United States. I followed a bunch to Garland, Texas, where Resistol Hats maintains a huge plant that turns hat bodies into finished Panamas. Many become straw cowboy hats, the lightweight alternative to the bulkier and more expensive Western felt hats. One of the jaunty Sunday-afternoon-in-the-park hats I trailed ended up in a shop in downtown San Diego, where a longtime straw-hat junkie came in for his annual fix. After paying $35 for it, he told me how he and his brother-in-law like to buy hats and give them to each other and to friends. "You know," he said, "a man looks so different in a hat. To give another man a hat - well, there's something about it that creates and bond. It's a lasting friendship."