If you are interested in the history of the Panama - you will greatly appreciate reading this page - it's long but very interesting! 10 minutes of reading and you will be a Panama Expert!
The fine straw hats known as "panamas" originate in the mountains and the coastal regions of Ecuador, where high altitudes and equatorial sun have made the creation of superior sun protection a practical necessity.
Panama hats are made from the sustainably harvested young leaves of the panama hat palm, Carludovica palmata. Carludovica grows in the coastal rain forests near the city of Guayaquil, and the towns of Montecristi and Jipijapa, whose names on occasion also describe the straw or hats.
Fan shaped leaves adorn trees of about eight or ten feet. Because Carludovica is not a true palm, young leaves can be sustainably harvested without threatening the life of the tree. The leaves are boiled or "cooked" to remove sap and combed into thin straws. The more adept the cooking and the thinner the straw, the finer the woven hats will be.
Weavers in the countryside around Montecristi carefully prepare very fine straw to make the fantastically fine, cream colored hats for which Montecristi is famous. Most of the straw is bundled and transported a few hours away to Azoguez Province, high in the Andes, the center of panama hat production, perhaps the world's largest cottage industry.
Weavers purchase straw at the local markets, carefully selecting for light, even color. Occasionally we see a beautiful hat body with alternating darker and lighter straws and speculate that a frugal talented weaver made a virtue of a less expensive bundle of straw.
The weavers are farmers and their production follows the cycles of their agricultural lifestyle. Men and women sit in the doorways of their cottages, weaving over cylindrical wooden blocks held in their laps or on stands. Several straws are woven into a distinctive regional "button" at the top of the crown, and the loose ends are plaited around and around. As the weaving progresses and the crown and brim take shape, new straws are added, making engire rings.
A hat woven of many fine straws will accumulate several engires as it grows. AMontecristi fino held up to the light will reveal a lovely pattern of concentric circles of tiny stars of light. Sometimes a very fine hat is referred to as a seven or nine or ten ring hat, although whether this is a definitive standard of fineness is disputed. A standard-grade hat is the work of a day or two. A fino might take two or three weeks. A super fino might represent two months' effort by one of a few very special artisans.
Hats are sold within cooperatives or to a long established network of agents who bring them to markets and finishing factories in the bigger towns. Here the hats are graded and sent out to other weavers who finish the brim edges to the desired width and replace any discolored straws. Hats are washed and set out to dry on courtyard floors. They are usually bleached, and they may be dyed. Some hats may be blocked and trimmed. Most are baled and sent on to hatters around the world, such as San Francisco Hat Co.
A San Francisco Tradition Since The Gold Rush
Panama hats first came to the attention of North Americans and Europeans in the mid nineteenth century, when adventurers crossing the Isthmus of Panama to and from the California gold fields added a rolled "Panama" hat to their packs.
For years the luxurious, linen-like summer coolers were little known outside of exclusive circles, but that changed at the turn of the century. The building of the Panama Canal introduced thousands of North Americans to the tropics and popularised the panama.
Lightweight and comfortable, it swept fashion into the twentieth century. The stiff, dark derby became all but extinct as the classic panama was copied in soft felts, and its clean, graceful features became the hallmarks of the modern hat.
In the early years of the fashion, the characteristic shape was the Optimo, named for the optimo rolling crease that traverses the crown. Optimo is the Spanish cognate for the English "optimum," and in an era when everyone wore hats, fine woven rollable panamas were clearly the best hats money could buy. Teddy Roosevelt wore an optimo panama. Al Capone owned many and in fact, brought a weaver to Chicago from Ecuador to weave exclusively for him. The Duke of Windsor wore a particularly fine panama - rolled like a handkerchief in his breast pocket.
On the screen, anoptimo panama was a signifier of wealth and worldly sophistication, worn by actors like Sidney Greenstreet and Greta Garbo.
By the 1940s, the fedora, with its "bashed" and "pinched" crown and its snapped down brim, supplanted the optimo. This style, with a black ribbon or with a patterned and pleated puggaree band became a fashion classic, as did the plantation and gambler styles. These popular looks became so ubiquitous that many people still think the term "panama hat " specifically refers to a white straw fedora or perhaps to a nice sporty gambler style golf hat. In fact, panamas can be blocked into a great many shapes and sizes from pert little cocktail hats, to cowboy hats, to very wide brim sunhats.
Historically, fine panamas were prized for a light and even coloration. Now, with the proliferation of stark white "authentic paper panamas," a slightly darker or more variegated coloration speaks more eloquently of the weaver's craft. San Francisco Hat Company pioneered an appreciation of a more natural semi-bleached look, avoiding the environmental hazards of chlorine bleach. Modern dyes permit a rainbow of beautiful colours and provide opportunities for the weavers to display their skill in incorporating multicoloured patterns into the hats.
For years there has been talk of the decline of the traditional craft of hat weaving. Certainly, as the world has gotten smaller, many Ecuadorians have chosen to leave their farming communities for work in North America. However, hat weaving remains a vibrant industry, and young weavers as well as old take tremendous pride in their art, recognising that they are creating one of the fine handwoven textiles of the world.