Legend has it that a common straw hat, that favorite accessory of both the leisure class and field hand, ushered in a revolution – or maybe even three. It was a businessman named Eloy Alfaro who used his vast wealth to modernize public transportation in his native Ecuador, arm rebel soldiers, secularize Catholic institutions and bring an end to the conservative ruling party, all because his family made a fortune selling what is widely known as the Panama hat. This handcrafted accessory was the economic bedrock of Ecuador since 1835, though its future seems uncertain.
The Panama hat’s “mythical” past didn’t begin with Alfaro, however. He was one of several in Ecuador’s history who saw its true potential. In 1532, more than three centuries before Alfaro’s Revolución Liberal, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed on the coast of present day Ecuador, hungry for gold.
After making contact with the locals, he and his men noticed that many wore a kind of broad, brimless woven headdress that seemed to protect the natives from the rain and the sun. It reached all the way down to the shoulders, covering the ears and neck. These headdresses reminded his soldiers of the “tocas” that nuns and widows wore back in Spain. These “toquillas” or little headdresses were of such a finely-woven translucent material the Spanish thought they were made of vampire skin.
In reality, they were woven from fibers of a coastal palm tree native to the area, which was soon known as toquilla as well. In time, colonial Spanish settlers would employ the indigenous artisans to make a variation of these sombreros to their own liking.
These artisans had been simply following a long-standing tradition since 4,000 B.C, when the ancient Valdivians first started using the palms in their weaving. Researchers now believe that shortly before Pizarro landed, the ruling Incas sailed about South and Central America to trade with other cultures, sharing toquilla weaving techniques with the Mayas of the Yucatan. Hat makers employing the same techniques can be found today in the city of Becal, in the state of Campeche in Southern Mexico. Here, they are called “jipijapas” (a name taken from a city in Ecuador), though made from a relative to the actual toquilla palm.
Despite its Ecuadorian origin, this classic accessory has failed to shake the “Panama Hat” misnomer. Its name can be attributed to the fact that Panama had become a major center of trade in the 19th-century. Thousands were sold to fortune hunters making their way to California in 1849, and during the Spanish American War, the U.S. government bought 50,000 hats for the troops from merchants based there. When the Panama Canal was built in the early 20th-century, the hats became very popular at the construction site, where they were well suited to the hot, humid climate. Just after photographs of President Teddy Roosevelt—in white straw hat, supervising the dig—appeared in American newspapers, sales of the “Panama hat” soared worldwide.
Today, the greatest number of true Panama hats come from nearby Cuenca, where middlemen and exporters trade thousands of them a day. A hat of this type is often made using a rougher weave, though very high-quality hats can also be found here. The most prized hats, however, are woven by less than a dozen master craftsmen and women in the villages outside of Montecristi, a city 180 miles to the northwest. Here, weavers tend to split the material into finer strands. They are also at a disadvantage—Montecristi, a city at sea level, is much hotter and humid than Cuenca, cutting the number of workable hours in a day to a third. Regardless, it is patience and determination that produces a hat of superfino quality, making the end product far superior to the typical variety.
WEAVING WHITE GOLD
But everything you’ve just read is (pardon the expression) “old hat.” What’s mythical is how true “sombreros de paja toquilla” are made. It all starts with the hunt for cogollos, the unopened central leaf spikes of the toquilla palm, Carludovica palmata. After mature cogollos are found, they are then split into tallos, the tender fibers at the center of the tough outer shell.
The tallos are then boiled for a minute, dried and bleached in a large wooden box. Crumbled sulfur, the bleaching agent, is lit with hot embers, and placed under the box. After bleaching, the tallos are then cut to their proper length and split again by the weaver. A weaver then selects four pairs to begin the plantilla, the top of the hat.
This will continue until it is large enough to be placed on a hat block. From then on, the weaver works on the copa, or crown. The copa is now tall enough to reach the bottom of the hat block. Time for the weaver to start the brim. When the brim is finally wide enough, a rematador finishes the edge, weaving the tallos back into the hat itself.
Then it’s off to the azocador, who dips the hat in a shallow pan of water to soften it and tighten the edge, pulling the fibers in three successive revolutions so as not to make the brim pucker or distort. He hands the hat off to a corridor, who does an initial trimming of loose ends, washes, rinses and dries it, trims again…
… and then gives it to the apaleador who beats the hat with a wooden mallet to soften it, applying sulfur powder all the while to whiten it again. The hat is then carefully ironed by a planchador and blocked (shaped). Finally, a sweatband and ribbon are added by a seamstress.
The finer the weave, the more time it takes. The entire process of making a single hat of the highest quality may require seven or more different artisans. A good hat can be distinguished from one of lesser quality by the number of vueltas (circular revolutions) in its crown, a high number of weaves per inch, (up to 900 for superfinos), uniform color, translucence and strength. It’s said among hatmakers that a quality hat can hold water and, when rolled for storage, “can pass through a wedding ring.”
But can it pass the test of the modern market? Considering the amount of straw hats seen on the runways and fashion magazines in recent years, it would appear the industry is on a solid footing. Not so, in fact. With the import of cheap, mass-produced paper-based hats from China, the genuine handcrafted Ecuadorian version may soon be a thing of the past. To top it off, there is stiff competition within the country. Cuenca hats, though of high-quality, are often sold as Montecristis; only 1% are authentic. Hope, though, lies in government efforts to establish a denominación de origen (certificate of origin) much like those that accompany an authentic champagne, tequila, or mezcal.
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Leading image by Jeff Hammond.