Not defined by its form or shape, Panama hats are instead defined by the toquilla straw they are made from, harvested from the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Popular among laborers working on the Panama Canal in the late 1800s, the hat is said to have gained much international attention when US President Theodore Roosevelt was pictured wearing one in 1906 while touring the canal. Thus, the hats, known as sombreros de paja toquilla in Ecuador, became known internationally as Panama hats. Today, the industry is still thriving.
Hat weaving began in the mid-1600s along the Ecuadorean coast and grew as a village industry throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The towns of Montecristi and Jipijapa in the Manabi region gained a reputation as leading centers of the nascent industry, and it was here that in the 1830s the Spanish Manuel Alfaro set up in the business with an idea to export the headwear to Panama. In the same decade, city officials in Cuenca also decided to get in on the game, opening a factory to produce hats from toquilla straw.
Toquilla straw itself is harvested from the Carludovica palmata, which grows between 100 and 400 meters above sea level and is notoriously hard to access. The lowlands of Manabí boast the best conditions—rich soil, the right amount of moisture, and cool air and shade. Reaching up to eight feet high and maturing in three years, the Carludovica palmata is harvested in cycles of 30 days, allowing new leaves to grow. Harvesters opt for shoots found toward the base of the plant, which are thinner and can be more tightly woven. The stalks are later opened and the inner leaf fingers separated, split into straws, and boiled. Following coloring, the weaving process can begin. “The quality of the hat is measured by ‘degrees,’ which is the number of threads per centimeter,” Alicia Ortega, President of Homero Ortega P. & Hijos, told TBY. Thinner straws are selected for better quality hats, also affecting production time. “We have hats that have been weaved for a day or two, and others that took a few months to produce,” added Ortega.
Homero Ortega P. & Hijos was founded in 1972 in Cuenca and is today one of the largest producers of Panama hats. Tied somewhat to the production of raw material, the company produces between 180,000 and 200,000 hats per year and “exports its products to 28 different countries on five continents,” explained Ortega. Ecua-Andino, another maker of hats and the official provider of Panama hats to the French Open, produces 200,000 hats a year, of which only 12,000 are destined for the domestic market. “We have hats that go from $20 to $1,000. All of our hats are 100% handmade. The cost depends on the quality of the weaving,” Alejandro Lecaro, General Manager of Ecua-Andino, told TBY.
The Panama hat is also a tourism pull, with Homero Ortega P. & Hijos launching its Magic of the Hat museum in 2008. Visitors get to know the hat-making process, as well as the history of the garment. “Today, and more than ever, our priorities are to highlight our craft, maintain our customs and ancestral knowledge, and above all, transmit them to future generations,” commented Ortega. Likewise, Ecua-Andino has launched its own Panama hat route, where guests are treated to a visit to the plantation and enjoy a first-hand look at the production process.
For those sporting, or thinking of sporting, a classic Panama hat, Ortega offers advice on their maintenance; “store the hats in a dry place and remove possible stains by using a damp cloth, letting the hat dry, and ironing the hat on low heat, which protects their shape.”
© The Business Year