Who knew? Panama hats, woven from the straw of the toquilla plant, are from Ecuador! In Ecuador they don’t call them Panamas. They call them sombreros de paja toquilla. The origin of this misnomer comes from the hat’s widespread use by the workers who built the Panama Canal from 1904-1914.
Cuenca, Ecuador produces the finest Panama hats. When a friend asked me to buy him a finely woven Panama hat, we visited the factory. The best hats are custom made. Depending on the weaver and how fine the hat is woven, it could take anywhere from 1-6 months to complete.
Once the basic hat is woven, the process takes about an hour, cutting, inserting a headband, pressing, and gluing.
I chose an off white woven hat, and it was placed in a hat press for a few minutes to shape it.
She enjoyed demonstrating each step of the hat making process.
Next, she prepares the brim of the hat, carefully spraying it with a fine mist to make it pliable for sewing, then cutting off the excess.
Before cutting the brim, she hems it.
Then, it goes into the press for a second time.
A leather band is meticulously measured and sewn into the hat. I was amazed at the choice of colors, but I went with the traditional dark brown leather.
Notice the miniature Panama hat on her sewing machine.
Next, she glues the hatband in place. Again, so many choices of colors and designs. I chose the traditional black hatband.
Back into the press it goes.
Voila! The completed Panama hat. Isn’t it beautiful?
She puts it in a form fitting hat bag. Panama hats can be rolled, crunched, and stepped on and they still retain their shape. This special hat was tied on the back of my day-pack. Like a mother of a newborn, I sheltered and protected it throughout Ecuador.
Depending on the weave, Panama hats can cost as little as $15 or as much as $500. We were fortunate that Tucker ordered a fine woven hat, because we could never afford to buy one. Watching the step-by-step process was a treat!
Weaving sombreros de paja toquilla is somewhat of a lost art. There are few weavers left who can make such fine hats. I hope we didn’t see the last straw.
Enjoy Part 1 of a three part documentary called Weaving Life.