Panama and other Hats and a Plug for a City that Deserves One

It all started with a book – Tom Miller’s “The Panama Hat Trail”. That partly led us into the hat importing business, a recent trip that followed some of the same route, and insights into how important hats are on the western side of the Andes. On the way, we learned how little we knew about many things, and quickly realised that stepping outside one’s comfort zone can lead to interesting results.

First things first, Panama Hats do not come from Panama - one of the many myths that surround this legendary hat. They are from Ecuador and we were off to see how they are made.

But getting to Ecuador - a relatively small Latin American country north of Peru and south of Colombia - is a little difficult. Our route ended up being via Santiago de Chile to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s edgy, often underrated, main commercial centre. Relatively big, about twice the size of Auckland and with a similar spread, much of Guayaquil’s action centres on Malecon 2000, a boardwalk along the Guayas River, and the adjacent business and shopping area. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest Latin American urban design projects ever, the Malecon integrates older monuments with modern sculptures, public areas, entertainment centres and museums. At 27 degrees C in the cool season the climate is rather pleasant.

Guayaquil’s edginess comes through in rush hour. Traffic is somewhere between the regimented speedway of downtown Santiago (do not try and cross the road against the lights) and Lima’s almost suicidal (is this typically Peruvian?) madness. Guayaquilenos are set on getting where they want to go, but they still will give street vendors selling bottled water, fruit and any number of other items a fair go when the lights are red.  Traffic is one example of the culture shock that hit us as newcomers to Latin America – even though we had been selling the hats for several years. Put very simply, we had to turn our thinking on its head. That could make several articles, but back to the Hats.

Gateway to the Galapagos Islands for many tourists, Guayaquil, for us, was the base to meet our supplier and to head to parts slightly north to see the step by step process of what remains a largely cottage industry – making quality Panama Hats.

People have lived on this coast since about 3500 BC. From about the 16th century locals have been making something like Panama Hats from a local plant – the toquilla palm.

What we now know as the Panama Hat largely developed in the 19th century as Ecuadorean entrepreneurs saw a market for their hats that centred on the Panama Isthmus, be it for would-be California gold miners, people building the Panama Canal or what became Panama Hat aficionados. Somehow, imitations just did not make the grade even if they almost looked the same. The weave and feel of the paja toquilla is just different. Add to that the myths, you see that the Panama Hat has developed its own special something.

The toquilla palm is not really a palm, adding further to the mystery, and the only places it can grow to be made into Panama Hats are small plantations around Montecristi, a couple of hours drive north of Guayaquil. People tried to transplant the palm to make hats. But, as locals smilingly note, no one has been able to do it.

Fitted out with overalls, gumboots and gloves, covered in lotions, all to keep the mosquitos away, and wading through deep mud to get to the plantation, one seriously wondered why anyone might want to try! Then you see the plants and the first step, stripping the leaves and the magic of what will become a genuine Panama Hat begins.

Next, in villages that specialise in this part of the process, is boiling the palm strips in vats and drying them for weaving. Other villages specialise in weaving. Pile, near Montecristi, has the finest weavers in Ecuador. Some of these hats take 8 months to weave. These are called Montecristi Hats, even though very few are made there, and can take up to eight months to weave. Other hats are woven in Cuenca, southeast of Guayaquil.

Our supplier’s focus is on supporting traditional weaving and related methods, while using modern marketing and distribution to get quality product to buyers all over the world.

Also, our supplier has been exploring new products. An alternative that, unlike woven hats, can be rolled and squashed into your suitcase is a crocheted hat. These and coloured Panama Hats take tradition and add a little edge. They have been adding a new dimension to the more traditional styles of Panama Hat. Our supplier has also made a range for Emelec, one of Guayaquil’s two major football teams and specialist promotional hats for Cartier and various sports events including the French Tennis Open. Brand “ambassadors” include singer Katy Perry.

But Ecuador is not just about Panama Hats. From the coast to the High Andes that divide Western Ecuador from the Amazon Basin and down into the jungle, hats feature everywhere. For those in the know, different hats can tell you which village someone comes from. Hat stalls at weekly markets are almost as common as food stalls selling fruit, vegetables and meat of various kinds.

Hats range from women’s mini-panamas and boaters to more traditional Andean fedoras. In the High Andes, traditional outfits often match alpaca or wool ponchos with sheep’s wool hats. Our hat check took us up to 4000m on various active and dormant volcanoes.

In the past couple of years our supplier has been building on the Andean hat tradition to develop a line of fine wool hats that are both soft and durable, a winter compliment to the already popular Panama Hat summer range. Again, the idea is adding an edge to tradition.

 By Richard Fletcher

Published November Lawtalk New Zealand 2017 

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