A Famous Hat With a Serious Identity Crisis

Has our headline made you curious? What the heck am I talking about?
Well, of course the famous “Panama Hat” – which is sometimes referred to as “Montecristi Hat”, another name which is often not used correctly either. But I guess it’s too late to sell them under a new name, like “Ecuador Hat”.

Famous all over the world, Panama hats are also known as "Montecristi" hats. Both names are misleading because the "Panama hat" has its origin in Ecuador.

Famous all over the world, Panama hats are also known as “Montecristi” hats. Both names are misleading because the “Panama hat” has its origin in Ecuador.

Anyhow, the best of all “Panama Hats” originate in Ecuador! Similar hats are now also produced on the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico, but these don’t have such a long and convoluted history, nor can they match the quality of Ecuador’s best. In Ecuador itself they are simply known as “sombreros de paja toquilla” (hats of toquilla straw).

So why is so little credit given to the origin of these hats?

Hats made from Toquilla Straw were worn along Ecuador’s coast long before the first Spaniards arrived. It’s only their style which has changed over the centuries.

In the streets and at the markets throughout South America you can observe women wearing hats usually meant for men – like these rope vendors with Panama hats in Otovalo, Ecuador.

In the streets and at the markets throughout South America you can observe women wearing hats usually meant for men – like these rope vendors with Panama hats in Otovalo, Ecuador.

A Short History of the Panama Hat

In the early eighteen-hundreds the south of Gran Colombia was an ‘out of the way’ place, with little outgoing trade. Hence, some clever businessmen shipped their hats to Panama, which at the time was also part of Gran Colombia. There they sold them to people who passed through on their way to the west coast of North America.

Of course, when the “Ecuador Hats” arrived in the north, people said they bought their hat in Panama – thus the misnomer was born. Once gold was found in California in 1849, a flood of immigrants arrived, most via the isthmus of Panama – the shortest land bridge to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many of these also brought “Panama Hats” with them.

In the early nineteen-hundreds, work on the Panama Canal began, and most workers protected themselves from the fierce sun by wearing a straw hat. The fortune seekers, on their way to the famous gold fields, saw these hats, liked them, and bought them as “Panama Hats”.

So to this day these straw hats can’t get rid of their name “Panama Hats”.

Their second name, “Montecristi Hat”, can be as misleading because not all “Montecristi Hats” come from that town. Most of the toquilla straw is harvested in the Manabí province along the south coast of Ecuador. The two major hat producing towns in Manabí are Montecristi and Jipijapa.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Yet from 1836 onwards, Cuenca established itself as one of the straw hat producing centres of Ecuador. Most of the city’s early wealth is based on the hat industry. Many of the beautiful historic buildings (the reason for Cuenca’s World Heritage listing ) were built from “hat money”. To this day, some hats from Cuenca are marketed as “Montecristi Hats” – although the city is a long way from the coast and the Manabí province.

Most raw hats sold from Cuenca are manufactured in small villages outside the city. In the mountain town of Sigsig you can see the raw material for sale, locals with bundles of toquilla straw under their arms, and some people weaving hats whilst attending to their market stall.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

These country folk, who weave the hats, unfortunately make the least money from them, even though their skill determines the final quality of each hat. Nowadays, this poses a problem for the survival of this trade, as young people don’t want to work for such little money.

We heard that a weaver receives as little as $5-6 per raw standard hat, which is later sold for $35 in Cuenca, or $50-60 in the US or Europe. Of course there are huge differences in quality, from standard to super fine. A “Super Fino Panama Hat” can cost anything between $600 to over $1000.

Panama hats on display at the Montecristi Hat Factory. The one in the bottom row on the far right is a Standard quality hat, one like I bought. The second from the left is the far more expensive Super Fino.

Panama hats on display at the Montecristi Hat Factory. The one in the bottom row on the far right is a Standard quality hat, one like I bought. The second from the left is the far more expensive Super Fino.

The straw for every hat is produced from toquilla palm fronds. They are washed, bleached with sulphur, and dried. Then they are hand-woven into a rough hat shape.

The hats receive their final shape in a heated press. In the old days a heated iron was used to give them their shape. All the steps to finish a Panama Hat still involve a lot of manual labour, as I witnessed when I had my personal toquilla straw hat custom finished at Barranco in Cuenca.

The process to custom finish my hat. Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Wearing my new Panama hat. I chose a woven straw hat design with a hole pattern – to allow for more airflow. Yasha didn't buy this stunning mauve coloured hat because we don't know how to transport it in our small camper without it getting damaged...

Wearing my new Panama hat. I chose a woven straw hat design with a hole pattern – to allow for more airflow. Yasha didn’t buy this stunning mauve coloured hat because we don’t know how to transport it in our small camper without it getting damaged…

ps: did you know that the weaving of “sombreros de paja toquilla“ in Ecuador is considered of such importance that UNESCO added this craft to their “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage“ ?

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Did you know that the famous Panama hat isn't from Panama at all? Also known as a “Montecristi” hat, it originates in Ecuador. We explain the background of the misleading names. Our post shows photos of the manufacturing process of one of these exquisite pieces of headwear, from the raw palm fronds to the weaving and finishing. You'll be amazed by how much work goes into a single Panama hat!

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Recommended Reading:

Miller’s travel classic follows the making and marketing of a single Panama hat. It’s a captivating story of cultures in collision, raw capitalism, and an exotic, humorous journey.
 

Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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8 Responses

  1. Panama hats are from Ecuador? Wow, cool to learn that new fact. Travel Happy!

  2. The origin of the Panama hat is not something I never thought about, but this was really interesting! It’ll be a real shame is the craft disappears.

    • Juergen says:

      I guess the craft won’t disappear completely, but maybe only a small number of young people will continue it. Which in turn might make Panama hats more exclusive and expensive…

  3. Patti Morrow says:

    What a great headline — I was drawn in by my curiosity! The Panama hat is versatile and timeless. It doesn’t only look good on men, but cute on women too.

  4. Donna Janke says:

    I knew Panama hats came from Ecuador, but I did not know all the history you’ve provided or that they are made from toquilla palm fronds. Very interesting. It would be nice to see the weavers be more fairly compensated for their work. And it’s a shame Yasha didn’t have room for the mauve hat. It’s beautiful and looks great on her!

    • Juergen says:

      That the weavers earn so little really shocked us. On one hand Panama hats are sold very expensively in Western countries, they have become a new ‘fashion item’. So why not add another 15% to their price and let this flow through to the hard-working weavers – to ensure the future of this craft? But then, on the other hand, cheap copies from China are everywhere – even in shops in Ecuador. So maybe these copies create some pressure on prices.

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