Handicrafts in Ecuador are an expression of popular culture. Like many Latin American countries, Ecuador has preserved its traditions and ancestral know-how. Panama hat is the famous hat from Ecuador, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to bringing home a souvenir of this beautiful country.
The history of a famous hat
The Panama hat is known the world over, yet this straw hat bearing the name of another country originated in Ecuador. It’s only here that cardulovica palmata or paja toquilla grows, a palm leaf which, once dried, is woven by hand (1) into this headdress, discovered by the conquistadors in the early 16th century, and named “sombrero de paja toquilla” (or shawl straw hat).
Three centuries later, these “toquillas” were worn just about everywhere, from Peru to the cocoa plantations of Amazonia and Central America.
And even elsewhere: it is said that Napoleon, on St. Helena, sometimes abandoned his famous bicorne for a montecristi (2)!
In the early 19th century, trading posts were opened in Panama, a major transit point for world trade, to sell this merchandise, which was gradually exported all over the world.
Paris discovered the hat at the 1855 Universal Exhibition: Napoleon III was presented with a “fino “(3), and this was all it took to launch the fashion for the hat in the capital, which was then called “panama“, after confusion between the shipping country and the producing country.
It became even more popular in 1881, when the first shovels were turned on the Panama Canal. The health authorities at this huge construction site soon required thousands of workers from various countries to wear hats to protect themselves from the sun. Many of them adopted the “toquilla”, rightly finding it light, comfortable and practical.
The hat’s reputation was finally established in 1906, when the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wore it during a visit to the canal construction site: the photo went around the world, and the “panama hat” became a luxury hat for high society.
Since then, it has been worn by many celebrities (4) and millions of strangers, who substitute it for the boater as a summer hat.
And even though Ecuadorians prefer to call it the “sombrero de paja toquilla“, they have resigned themselves to marketing it under its current name, thus – let’s face it – doing good against all odds!
Panama hats are sold all over the world, in all shapes, colors and qualities, for both men and women, authentic (you can recognize them by the rosette that marks the start of the weave) or fake (5) , handmade or industrial, at affordable or exorbitant prices.
The best-known are men’s hats in the shape of the Borsalino (another famous hat, made from rabbit or hare hair).
(1) It’s worth noting that, while hat-weaving involves all genders, it was traditionally the preserve of women alone. They are still in the majority in this activity.
(2) There are three types of Panama hat: Brisa, Cuenca and Montecristi. Each type is characterized by a particular weaving stitch, and the position of the workers (Cuencas are woven sitting down, while Montecristis are woven standing up, leaning over their work).
(3) I.e. “fine”, characterized by the very high quality of its weaving.
(4) From Al Capone to Paul Newman, Winston Churchill to Sean Connery, Hemingway to Marlon Brando… There’s no counting the number of celebrities who have adopted the famous hat.
(5) Numerous counterfeits are in circulation, most of them produced in Ecuador’s neighboring countries. These imitations are generally easy to detect, smelling more of cellulose than straw!
An ecuadorian handicraft
Mainly produced in two major regions, Cuenca and Montecristi, Panama hats are woven by hand from the dried straw provided by young toquilla leaves, which are cut into increasingly fine filaments according to the degree of quality required: sub fino, fino, super fino and their variants.
The finer the filaments, the longer the weave (sometimes more than six months, especially if very tight and regular). The rarer the panama, the more expensive too (a Montecristi extra fino can exceed a thousand euros).
But whatever it is, the panama hat has a history, based on ancestral know-how that has remained virtually unchanged since its origins. And even if this fashion accessory has fallen somewhat into disuse, behind each of these hats emerges the culture of a country and the pride of its people: the land of Ecuador is topped with a panama, a sun that distinguishes and illuminates it, its soul.
To discover Panama hat manufacturing in Cuenca during your trip to Ecuador, contact us.