The History and Creation Process of the Panama Hat
The Panama hat is a stylish but breathable type of hat that became popular in the 1800s, and it is still just as snazzy as it was back then. When you want a hat to compliment your summer outfit, it is perfect for keeping you cool and looking cool.
But, did you know? The infamous Panama hat does not originate from Panama. This hat that became famous thanks to Panama actually originated from Ecuador. Then, how did it become known as the “Panama” hat? This can be chalked up to a few factors in history.
A Brief History on Panama Hats
Hats made out of toquilla straw have been around since the Spanish came to Ecuador, which was around the 1500s. It was not until the 1800s that these toquilla straw hats would become more widely known and fashionable.
A man named Manuel Alfaro arrived in Montecristi, Ecuador in the 1830s. He immediately threw himself into the toquilla hat industry, looking to make a fortune. With a focus on exportation, he reorganized the process of production of toquilla straw hats better than anyone ever had before.
At the same time, Panama was booming with tourists thanks to the California Gold Rush happening. Alfaro, seeing the appeal of Panama, established a company in Panama to sell his hats. And thanks to the selling point being in Panama, the toquilla hat became known as the Panama Hat.
Another factor that may have led to this misnomer was the creation of the Panama Canal. The newspapers capturing the process took pictures of the workers, who were wearing the toquilla hats as they were perfect for the hot, sunny weather. Then, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the worksite. He was photographed wearing the eye-catching hat at the Panama site, and with no other way to refer to the hat, people called it the Panama hat.
These are only two notable factors that led to the Panama hat being known as the Panama hat and the industry becoming what it is today. The Panama hat has a bit more history and connection with Ecuadorian history than you can find here, so if you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to do your own research!
Fun fact: While the Panama hat craze originated thanks to Ecuador, it is not the only country that produces Panama hats. Toquilla grows along the northwest coast of South America, so Colombia also makes Panama hats of their own. Ecuador may produce the very top quality of Panama hats, but Colombia is not far behind.
The Panama Hat Process
Now that you know how the “Panama” hat came to be, let’s see how a Panama hat is made nowadays. A Panama Hat gets its value from its handmade aspect, so the process is still very hands-on. However, with modernization and the development of machines, some of the process is made easier.
From the very beginning, the process starts with harvesting some palm leaves. Well, more like stalks of palm leaves.
You may have noticed that the plants harvested are not from a normal palm tree. This plant, Carludovica palmata plant, or more known as the toquilla palm or jipijapa palm, is a plant with palm tree-like traits. The fibers it produces are light, flexible, and durable, which is perfect for hat weaving.
These stalks are then prepared for the drying process by being separated. Once the leaves become straw, they are bundled up and ready to be weaved!
The weaving process is the most intricate and longest part of the process. Depending on the tightness of the weave and the experience of the weaver, it could take months to weave a single hat.
A Panama hat is more expensive the tighter the weave because of the time and technique needed. For those just starting to explore Panama hats, or if you're already an avid collector, we recommend looking at Latin’s Hand - our Colombian Panama hats are sold at an excellent value for their weave! If you’re looking for a great option to find a quality Panama hat without spending hundreds, we recommend browsing our selection.
Now, it’s time to go more mechanical. Here, you can see the hat being prepped and pressed! After being shaped, the weaved hats are no longer round and bulbous. At the end, you can see the results of different hats being pressed. Notice not all of them are the same shape!
Now, to deal with the pesky edges of straw poking out, edge cutting is employed. It's like shaving the hat for a clean cut.
After cleaning up the edges, the ends are curled inward and sown in to round off the brim of the hat. If left alone, the edges would be quite sharp.
That is the gist of the whole process of the actual Panama hat, but there’s more! The next two steps are more for add-ons to Panama hats.
Most, is not all, Panama hats have some kind of band decoration. It can be a ribbon, a leather strap, or any kind of fabric. Below is the process of making a leather strap for a Latin’s Hand hat called Ibero Americano.
Finally, a product would not be complete without its branding!
And that is how you get a Panama Hat made. The process may differ depending on where you get a hat and who makes it, but the general process should be the same.
Interested in Looking and Feeling Cool?
Want to start diving into Panama hats? Check out the Latin's Hand Collection of Panama hats! And if you are ever in the New Orleans area, drop by our store in the French Quarter - we are right outside the French Market, you can't miss us!