Panama hats . . . who knew those rather stately head coverings weren’t from Panama? Well, maybe some of you smart alecs did, but we were woefully unaware—until we visited Cuenca’s Homero Ortega & Hijos factory and museum, that is. I know what you might be thinking. Tons of hats hung on a wall? How is that interesting after five minutes? Well, my friends. We are here to tell you that the visit was simply fascinating. A bit of history . . .
When the Spaniards arrived in Ecuador way back when, the natives were wearing what the Spaniards referred to as “vampire wings.” In 1630, it is rumored that Francisco Delgado, one such Spaniard, thought the flaps looked a bit goofy. He proclaimed that a brimless hat should be invented, and, thus, the “Toquilla” was born.
Or something to that effect. The salient point is that Ecuadorians had been weaving these straw hats for yonks. In the 19th century, there was a nationwide economic depression, especially in the southern half of the country. So in 1835, vocational workshops started sprouting up in Cuenca as a means to generate income. Master hat weavers shared their knowledge with new apprentices and, little by little, hat making became a prosperous activity. Ecuadorian families devoted themselves to weaving the hats, and in the beginning of the 20th century, export partnerships were formed. Between 1944 and 1945, straw hats were the principal export of Ecuador.
So why do these hats carry a name from a different country? As you might have guessed, the hats became especially popular (and were increasingly in demand) during the time of the construction of the Panama Canal. The light fibers made the hat an ideal protector from the sun and, thus, were worn by the majority of construction workers. Over time, the hat became associated with the Canal and . . . Yadda yadda yadda.
Fascinating? Oh, yes. But there’s more. Here’s a simplified play-by-play of how the Panama hat is manufactured today:
The hat’s fibers come from the cyclanthaceae, a plant similar to the palm tree that only grows in Ecuador. Once planted, the stalks take three or so years to mature before they can be harvested. They are then cut into strips, soaked in boiling saltwater for about an hour, and hung out to try in the sun. When sufficiently dry, the strips are expertly woven into the most preliminary of hats. Depending on how thin the fiber strips are, it can either take anywhere between to three days and six months to weave one hat.
The hats are then transported to factories in Cuenca for finishing. There, the loose ends are tightened, tied-off, and clipped to prevent the weave from coming undone. Next, the hats are dumped into large tanks to be washed and bleached. After they are left to soak for a few hours, they are transferred to the floor and set out to dry in the sun.
As you know, the original Panama hat is a stylish white or off-white. But there are other colors (some quite garish, in my opinion) that have become popular as of late. Yellow, chartreuse, magenta, you name it. (Clearly, this hat has no shame!) Whatever the color may be, the dying process happens after the hats are first washed and bleached.
The next step involves nifty hat-making machinery. The hat is placed in this contraption, along with one of eighty different molds. The lever on the side is pulled and plunk! The top of the hat now has its unique and distinguished shape.
Next, the finalizing and finishing takes place. Ribbons of various colors are placed around each brim. For the ladies’ hats, straw flowers (made of the same material) are fastened onto the ribbons. There are endless variations of how these beauties can turn out and depending on the fiber count (the finer the fiber, the more expensive the hat), each hat can cost anywhere from under $10 to a couple of thousand dollars—especially those hats that are shipped overseas.
Of course, this process describes how it’s done in modern times. Back in the day, the hats were bleached, washed and dyed by hand using natural dyes. Large wooden mallets helped soften the fibers and pounded the hat into shape. Master craftsmen used irons to steam the hat’s hand-finished edges, creating a brim. In the photo to the right, someone is getting a lesson from one such pro. Perhaps a new milliner in the making?
All in all, the whole experience was pretty interesting. Mark even tried on a hat or two at the end. I might be biased, but I think he looks pretty handsome.
And lest I forget, the usual slideshow . . .
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I hope Mark bought a hat – he looks like he was born to wear one!
This post is really entertaining and informative. I love the “step by step” that you’ve been doing in your posts!
Sasha’s head is getting really big. Today I looked at him and thought, “That is one big fleshy head”
I totally agree with ARI…….this hat was made for you — hope you bought it!
It’s amazing to discover that even a simple straw hat is a very skilled, time consuming,
Very interesting descriptions….including how it got it’s name.
love mom w.
OK Mark….a movie role for you is in the making. You looked great in that hat and I, too, hope you bought it.
Hugs to you both. We miss you.
So that is why I couldn’t find the hat I was looking for in panama.
Tell me you bought one for your self.
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