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The Art of the Panama Hat

Montecristi, Ecuador- “Buy me a hat.” Before I left those four words were thought and uttered by my father to be heard and stored in my mind to be acted upon now after thirteen months and several thousand miles of travel on planes, boats, motorcycles and, of course, buses. More specifically he asked for a [...]

Montecristi, Ecuador-

“Buy me a hat.”

Before I left those four words were thought and uttered by my father to be heard and stored in my mind to be acted upon now after thirteen months and several thousand miles of travel on planes, boats, motorcycles and, of course, buses.

More specifically he asked for a Panama Hat. In this world there are two cities which act as the source for just about all Panama hats and neither of them are in Panama – Cuenca and Montecristi. What Cuenca is to mass production Montecristi is to quality; in the Panama hat trade anyway. Walking through Cuenca you see Panama hats everywhere. As is the case with most interesting hats in South America, the Panama hat is donned by local women as their hat of choice and as a part of their traditional dress. Finding a hat store is almost as easy as finding an heladeria (ice cream shop) in town. They mass produce the hats and ship them throughout the world for anyone wanting to pull off a Leonardo DiCarpio impersonation from Shutter Island or loves that Casablanca look. But for every thousand hats produced in Cuenca one is finished in Montecrisiti. Okay, that statistic is made up. I have no idea the exact number of hats produced in each city to give a real number for comparison but the general idea stands. It is widely accepted throughout the world that the best Panama hat comes from Montecristi and there are fewer hats produced in Montecristi than in Cuenca.

The Hat with an Identity Crisis

To call them a Panama hat is a bit of a misnomer. They’ve never been made in Panama. Sold there, yes. With all those goods and people passing through Panama in the 19th century it was only a matter of time before certain goods were bought and popularized by travelers passing through this tiny piece of land. The hat was one of those goods which struck the eye of many travelers. They bought a hat and kept on going to wherever it was they were going in the world. The California gold rush of 1849 increased the number of those travelers and a famous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt wearing the hat half a century later on a trip to tour the Panama canal construction helped usher things along. All it took were a few conversations of,

“I like your hat.”

“Thanks! I bought it in Panama.”

for the name ‘Panama Hat’ to stick forever. It was that easy for Ecuador to get shafted out of one of it’s iconic exports. In Ecuador, you can call them Panama hats and people will know what your talking about but they prefer to call them ‘sombreros de paja toquilla‘ named after the type of straw used to create the hats. I can’t say the name ‘hats of toquilla straw’ is real original or catchy. ‘Panama hat’ on the hand is easier to say and lends itself a certain amount of tropical exotic charm.

Creation

A wall painting showing the general jist of how a Panama hat is weaved.

Just as I had arrived in Montecristi from somewhere else so have the straw hats. I was coming from Montañita. They were coming from Pilé. The best hats are coming from there anyway. Some of the finest Panama hats which sell for thousands upon thousands of dollars (And I do mean thousands. Hats selling for $10,000 or more is possible.) begin in Pilé and can take between 4 – 6 months, or more, to weave. The number of hours of monotony is mind boggling. I don’t know what kind of schedule these people work on but if they’re weaving one hat for eight hours a day, five days a week for four months that’s somewhere in the ballpark of 640 hours to create a single hat. With those kinds of hours invested the large price tag begins to become understandable. To produce the same hand-woven hat in the U.S. at the current Federal minimum wage would cost $4,640 in labor. Absurd. For a mere fraction of that price the weavers work their magic cutting, bleaching and weaving the cogollo plant into a general hat form.

The hats are then sent to Montecristi for their finishing touches. It’s time for backweaving the brim, tightening, cutting loose straw, beating the hat (literally bashing it with a club), ironing and shaping. In total, six people handle the hat from start to finish which adds up to more hours of strained eyes, tired hands and back aches than I care to fathom.

The Search Begins

So many times I thought to myself, “It’s just a hat!” But the idea that so many people dedicated themselves and countless hours in the pursuit of such a simple item fascinates me. So, like the hats. I arrived in Montecristi. Once again dumped off on the side of the road. I had reached Ground Zero and I have to say that there really isn’t much there. It’s a reasonably sized town but nothing to draw anyone in unless your like me and on a hat mission. From what I saw, not many foreign travelers are on such a mission. I didn’t see any actually. Not one in the two and a half days I spent there.

Where not to buy your hat

This surprised me given the number of stores with large sombrero signs and hats in glass cases next to hammocks strung along the wall on the main street. In my search for a hat these weren’t the kind of stores I was looking for. This isn’t the part of town where the artisans are located. These are the parasitic stores that latch onto a good thing to suck it dry of all its real value until everything that is original and unique about a place is nothing but a dried up shell of it’s former glory. Take, for example, Cuzco. The hats in these stores were crap and I didn’t come all the way out to this town for a sub-par item that I could have bought back in Cuenca or any other Ecuadorian town.

The search was on. I’m no toquillo hat expert but I was ready to start perusing the finer hat collections in town. In this regard I was keeping an eye out for three things.

1. An Even Weave – Are the rows in the hat straight or do they waver up and down? The smaller and tighter the weave the more difficult it becomes to get straight rows. Thus, a hat’s price not only increases in price because of the time a smaller weave takes but also because of the difficulty in producing a finer product with a smaller weave.
2. Gaps – Is the weave tight or are there random gaps or holes in the weave?
3. Knots – Are there disturbances in the weave pattern from bumps or knots or is the pattern consistent throughout?

Finding a perfect hat wasn’t my objective and finding a hat with a completely perfect weave be impossible since their made by hand. Maybe I should correct myself. It’s probably possible to find that perfect hat but I wouldn’t be finding it and no one else will be finding it unless they are ready to plunk down some serious dough. By ‘serious dough’ I mean in the four to five digit range. If your sitting in a first world country reading this and think that seems like an absolutely ridiculous amount of money to spend for a hat remember where I’m sitting. This is Ecuador. I can stay in a hotel room with cable tv, WiFi, a private bathroom and a large comfortable bed and the price doesn’t leave the single digit range. So, ‘four digit wealth’ really means something here. Especially if you have enough monetary digits to spend four of them on a hat.

The quiet street of Roquefort

Immediately putting the main street behind me I started looking behind the town church. Here lies the quieter street of Roquefort. ‘Stores’ are nothing more than people’s living room with a glass case holding around a dozen hats. At the end of the street right around a small bend sits a toothless old man in a chair by a doorway working on the final cuts of a hat with straw littering the floor around him. That man was Rosendo Delgado. He’s right around 87 years old and still ticking.

Just past Rosendo was his dark living room store. I walked in a bit timidly perusing the glass case not really sure what the protocol is. Do I just slide open the case and start man handling these things or will someone help me out here? A woman (his wife maybe?) came over a minute later and saw the baffled look in my eyes. I told her what I was looking for and she pulled a hat out of the glass case. It was okay, but I wanted better. She saw that in my facial expression and went into a back room.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” I thought.

Bring out the quality stuff from the back and forget about this mediocre crap in the glass case. She brought out a few more hats. I gave them a once over but they just didn’t seem to have the quality I was looking for. It had a tight, fine weave but it was lacking the final polish. In all the hats the back stitch created a wavy brim or there were too many random gaps. Not bad but this can’t be the best that I can find. I am in the spot for hand-made straw hats. I want to be shown something that makes me say, ‘Wow.’

The next shop I went into I shouldn’t even have given the time of day. He was your standard swindler with a few hats that were overpriced and of bad quality. He should have been located on the main street of town with the other parasitic vendors.

Across the street was a rustic looking concrete house. I walked in the door and saw another glass case with a few more hats and a hammock swinging across the floor. Their quality of hats wasn’t what I was looking for either.

“Quiero mas calidad. Mas fino. Muy fino.”

I spoke these words and it had the same effect as a General blowing a bugle and yelling “Charge!” She immediately sprung into action calling several friends on the phone and arranged for a guy to walk me to another place where I could buy a “Sombrero muy muy fino.”

Good thing this guy walked me to the next place because it was another house a couple blocks off of Roquefort. There was a small painting above the doorway but nothing that stood out. Especially not with a car parked out front blocking the doorway and no windows or pen door to showed any sign of life. I never would have come across this house.

A Panama hat in its most basic shape before being formed.

I was greeted at the front door by Glenda who took me upstairs to a closet. It was as simple as that. No fancy sombrero sign out front. No glass cases. Just a closet with two stacks of unfinished sombreros wrapped in plastic garbage bags. Lots of them. They were exactly what I was looking for. They had been backweaved, pounded, cut and ironed but had yet to be formed. I could examine the quality easily and found these to be of the exact quality I was looking for. I was free to look at half of the hats in the room in which the prices ranged from $50 – $1,000.

Only half? Why couldn’t I look at all of them?

The Optimo Hat Company is located on 10215 S. Western Ave. in Chicago. It is known as one of the few existing ‘hatters shops’ today and they specialize in hand blocking and hat restoration. The other half were destined to wind up in Optimo’s Chicago store. All would sell for over $500. The $1,000 hat that I marveled over in it’s fineness of weave and lightness could sell for many times that amount in Chicago. I have to admit they’re website is pretty fancy and they want to convince you that each hat is an investment that will last countless numbers of years and that their store is built on quality and tradition in order to separate you from some serious dinero.

Twenty four hours later I walked out of the same house with my dad’s Panama hat. I can’t say that the final shape has been ‘gently altered’ using ‘classic 1930’s molds’ in order to give it a ‘timeless modern look’ as Optimo claims it can do but I also received the insiders discount by going straight to the source. Still, quality is quality and even in Ecuador that doesn’t come cheap.

The finished product

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Filed under: Cubicle Ditcher, Ecuador

About the Author:

Sam Langley left a comfortable and profitable job with an insurance company in the USA to travel the world. He has been going for years, and has not stopped yet. Keep up with his travels on his blog at Cubicle Ditcher. has written 147 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.