Hats Off to Ecuador

Of some 139 styles of hats today, only one is named for a country – and it’s the wrong country! I refer to the Panamá hat. This hat originated in Ecuador and continues to be made by Ecuadorians, though there are some international knockoffs. The best Panamá hats are made in Montecristi, a town in the coastal lowlands, where about 70 families continue to intricately hand weave the finest hats. The second most important town for the weaving of these hats is Cuenca.

Across and down the street from the 10 de Agosto Mercado is the Panamá Hat museum. There are two major steps in making a hat: weaving and blocking. The best Panamá hats are woven with the Toquilla straw growing in the coastal wet lands. The best of the Montecristi hats may have as many as 3000 weaves per square inch and take up to 8 months to weave. The cuenca and the brisa are two types of weave, the former producing a herringbone pattern while the latter shows a small diamond/square pattern.

Blocking the hat gives it its shape. The traditional Panamá is a fedora-style hat with a central dent in the crown, which appears pinched at the front while the brim may vary in width. At the museum, large machines are used for blocking. On display are hundreds of hats of varying styles and even colors. It has been said the the finest of these hats, the superfino, has such a tight weave it can hold water and even be rolled up and passed through a wedding ring. I wouldn’t recommend this.

If these hats are made in Ecuador, why are they called Panamá hats? There seem to be three reasons.

  • The hat originated in the Spanish colonial days of what became Ecuador, and by the 19th Century, Ecuador needed an expanded market for selling its local products. The hats, along with coffee and chocolate, were shipped to the more developed country of Panamá which had become a hub for international shipping. This resulted in the hat being called a Panamá hat. By 1944, it was Ecuador’s largest export product at 4.3 million hats leaving the country.
  • The second reason the hat got coined Panamá was due to the gold rush men on their way to California. These men traveled from Europe and the Eastern US through the Panamá Canal to get to the Western US. When they got to Panamá, they realized they would need a hat to protect them from the sun. There they found a lightweight brimmed hat would do the trick and referred to it as the Panamá hat.
  • The third possibility for the name of the hat is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt who was seen wearing one on his 1906 visit to the Panamá Canal. This became a fashion statement for men, and they quickly bought the hat and called it the Panamá hat. Men such as Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, and Gary Cooper wore and helped popularize the hat. Whatever the reason, the name for the hat stuck and continues to be known  today as the Panamá hat.

It took a lot of hats to reach the 1944 export figure, however. By 1850, 2,000 hats had been made in the Cuenca area. A big moment for the hat came in 1855 when the hat was introduced at the World Exposition in Paris. This caused a quick rise in shipments to Europe, resulting in a half million hats leaving Ecuador. But a major mistake was made at this exposition: there was no mention of the hat being produced in Ecuador, leaving Europeans believing it was created in Panamá.

Other countries have gotten on the bandwagon producing look-alike hats using wood, wheat, and even palm leaves. Don’t be fooled by these. A true Panamá hat using  toquilla straw will show a flowering out in the weave from the center top of the hat. This is a genuine Panamá hat and you should be proud to wear it.

Fact: The Panamá hat is sometimes called the Johnny Depp hat
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The Real Panamá Hat

When I arrived in Panamá, I wanted to purchase a Panamá hat, so I went shopping. What I found were high prices and small sizes. Instead, I bought a black floppy hat. Hats are popular in Panamá because they offer shade from the tropical sun.

The Panamá hat, known worldwide, did not originate in Panamá. It was created and continues to be made in Ecuador. The hat was made popular in Panamá at the time of the building of the Panamá Canal and when men were crossing Panamá to go to the California Gold Rush. Panamá exported large quantities of this hat throughout the world, giving rise to the notion that it was made in Panamá. The hat comes in three different styles; the finest hats can take up to 8 months to weave.

The real Panamá hat [my term] is called the Pintao. These hats, originating in Central Panamá, are made by hand, a skill which has been passed down from generation to generation. No industrial process has ever been created that could make these hats. Producing a hat is a family project involving 4 to 5 people and taking 3 to 10 weeks. Local plants and swamp mud are used to make the hat, the leaves being stripped of their fibers. These fibers are buried in mud for curing and then further cured in the sun. The fibers, white or yellow in color, are then braided together to produce bands.

The bands are then wrapped around a form creating a turn and sewn together from the top down. A hat consists of 15 to 24 turns; the more turns, the higher the value.  The prices can range from $150 to as much as $400. Because it is very difficult to get the ends of the colored bands to meet, the closer they come together, the higher the price. The whole fascinating process can be seen in this YouTube video:

The Pintao was originally worn by the workers in the field. Today, the hat is worn by both men and women, either for a special occasion or for daily use. The way it is worn sends a message:

  • the brim folded up in front and back indicates the wearer is a successful person
  • folded at the back only indicates an intellectual person
  • folded at the front only indicates a womanizer
  • no folds indicate nothing but protection from the sun
  • tipped forward indicates sadness, especially during mourning

The Pintao may never outplace the Panamá hat’s reputation, but the hat is significant in Panamanian culture, even today.

Fact: A place in Panamá is one of the few places in the world where you can view the sun rising in the west and setting in the east

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Credit: Thanks to my friend Barry, the proud owner of 4 Pintaos, for suggesting the idea and forwarding me documents for this post. Suggestions always welcome at: Warren@TravelSketches.info

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