Poor old Ecuador. Apart from the Galapagos Islands, few people know anything about the place; and the country’s one world-famous export that everyone has heard of is forever associated with an entirely different country – the Panama Hat. To any Ecuadorian worth his or her salt, it’s a sombrero de paja toquilla (toquilla-straw hat); and to the connoisseur, it’s a Montecristi (named after Ecuador’s most famous hat-making town, a place that’s like Havana to cigar aficionados).
In the mid-nineteenth century, straw hats from Ecuador were traded in (and exported from) Panama (along with vast quantities of many other goods from around Latin America), and they quickly became a favourite with gold prospectors and labourers on the Panama Canal, the light and durable hats being perfect protection from the tropical sun. In 1904 US President Teddy Roosevelt was photographed inspecting the Canal wearing one. And so began the association with the country of purchase, rather than the country of origin – an error that was fully cemented when the hat was introduced to Europe at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris as the “Panama Hat”. And since then, Ecuador has endured the rest of the world mistakenly crediting another country with its most famous product. The indignant words “Genuine Panama Hat – Made In Ecuador” are now stamped on every one, in an attempt to reclaim sovereignty over the product, without confusing everyone or upsetting the brand name.
The tradition of hat-making goes back a long way in Ecuador – the first Spanish conquistadors wrote about the broad hats the locals wore, calling them toquillas, and they soon began to wear them themselves, to stave off the sun’s glare, and praised their lightness and coolness. In the 1800s, factories employing more modern methods were set up in the southern Andean highlands around Cuenca, and they slowly began to surpass the traditional weavers on the Pacific coast. The hat became fashionable worldwide in the 1940s, and since then it’s been one of the country’s most-famous-yet-not-famous products.
The hats are made from the fibrous fronds of the toquilla palm, which grows in the inland regions of the Ecuadorian coast. The tree also grows in other tropical Latin American countries, but, according to the experts, it’s Ecuador’s Pacific coast that produces the finest material for hat-making. The toquilla plant can grow up to several metres high after just a few years, but the best leaves for hat-making are the newer shoots around the base, which are picked in monthly cycles.
The work that goes into these hats is astonishing, and it’s all done by hand. First the palms are harvested for their shoots, which are ready just before they open into leaves. Bundles of shoots are then transported to nearby coastal towns and villages, where the fibers are prepared.
The shoots are beaten on the ground and then split, to remove the long, thin, flat, cream-coloured leaves. Then the leaves have to be prepared, by splitting, cleaning, and boiling. They’re then dried in the sun for several days, bleached with sulphur, and cut into straw. As the split leaves dry, they shrink and roll up into the round strands that are used for weaving.
Some of the finished straw stays on the coast, but most of it is purchased by buyers from Cuenca and surrounding highland areas, where the straw is woven into hats. Which is probably why there are more panama hats for sale in and around Cuenca than anywhere else in the country, and why Cuenca has its very own Panama Hat Museum. Inside El Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (which also houses the workshop, and store, of hat-maker Rafael Paredes and Sons), there are some wonderfully-kitsch dioramas of various plastic mannequins preparing and weaving the hats, plus an assortment of clunky metal moulds and tools, that look more like medieval torture devices than sophisticated hat-making equipment (including a 19th-century contraption that resembles an orange-juice-squeezer, but was actually used to measure the size and shape of a person’s head).
The weaving process is as arduous and labour-intensive as the preparation, and the best weavers work early in the morning or late at night, both to avoid the sun (which stiffens the straw prematurely), and so it’s not so hot that their hands get sweaty. According to the museum, some work only by moonlight (which sounds more romantic than it probably is). The brim is woven and tightened, and the excess straw trimmed off, before the hats are washed, dried, and softened with a mallet, while more sulphur is beaten into the fibres to bleach it, before another final trim. The hats are then pulled over wooden blocks and ironed with yet more sulphur (I’m not sure what the health & safety aspects of all that sulphur are). Then they’re pressed into their final shape by hand (although these days, most hats are steam-pressed by a machine into shape in a few seconds).
Weaves vary from a loose crochet (characteristic of most of the hats that I see sold everywhere), to a tighter weave, which is used for the highest-quality hats – apparently, the very best hats are so tightly-woven that they can hold water, and so pliable that they can be rolled up and pulled through a finger-ring! At least that’s what the tour guide / salesman tells me in the museum’s store (or maybe it’s the store that has a museum?).
The showroom is several times larger than the museum itself, and consists of an enormous room stacked from floor to ceiling with the famous headgear. Although standard-grade hats start at just US$15 in Ecuador, a highest-grade ‘superfino’ can cost around US$500 here, and twice that in the States or Europe. I must confess, after wandering around for some time (with the salesman following me at a discreet distance), I don’t buy anything – despite wanting to look like Roger Moore while wearing one, I just end up looking more like Alan Partridge. But it’s an interesting education into the famous hat, the work that goes into making it, and the craftsmen (the last experts of their dying craft) who still do.