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What is a Panama hat?
Basically, it is a white summer hat that is woven from the straw of the Toquilla Palm. Even though it’s called Panama hat, it’s originally made in Ecuador and it has never been made in Panama. In Ecuador, it’s better known as the SOMBRERO DE PAJA TOQUILLA which means as much as a straw hat. Panama hats have been woven in Ecuador since the 17th century and they’ve been imported since the 19th century to Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
So how did the Panama hat got its name?
During the 1834 Gold Rush in Canada, when miners went from South America to Canada, they saw those hats in Panama and so they got their name. On top of that, Theodore Roosevelt popularised the hat style and even cemented the Panama name when he was wearing one observing the Panama Canal and of course, being photographed.
So how is a Panama made?
Basically, you take the core fibers of the toquilla plant which are also known as cogollos. The cogollos are the hearts of the palm tree and they’re carefully separated by hand and then briefly boiled. Since they’re wet, they have to be sun-dried or air dried and once that’s done, the fiber is bleached with sulfur smoke to give it the original Panama light color. Sometimes, you can also find uncolored hats but they have a much more yellow appearance. To get really fine hats, the palm tree fibers are split into even finer straw fibers. The weaving of a Panama hat begins at the center of the crown. Once the crown is large enough, it’s put in a dry pot and woven on top of a hat block at about waist height. Once the weave extends past the size of the hat block, the weaver adds additional blocks on top and pulls down the weave so it stays in place and it gets that hat shape. The entire process is physically quite tiring and depending on how fine your hat is, it can take anywhere from a few weeks up to several months to create one hat. Once the weaver gets to the edge of the brim, it’s typically handed off to other artisans who finish the hat. Traditionally, a Panama hat has a loose back weave which is much more elegant than a cut and sewn edge. So when you want a quality hat, look for that edge because if it’s back woven, it’s of a much higher quality than if it’s cut and sewn. Typically, you have one person who starts the back weave, a second one that tightens it, and the third one cuts off the loose straw so it has a polished nice finish. If you have a very fine hat, they keep that excess straw and use it to maybe make repairs later. In the next step, the hats are washed and bleached with sulfur to make them softer and more suitable to wear as a wonderful summer hat. Subsequently, the hats are blocked or either brought to the US to head blockers who then get the hat the right shape. In my experience, the hats that come directly out of Ecuador usually have a very small range of different styles and shapes and are very limited. Because of that, quality Panama hats are usually brought raw at this stage to the US or to other countries which are then blocked by an experienced head blocker who can get exactly the shape the customer demands. Traditionally, every Panama hat was woven by hand but due to a high demand, most hats these days are machine woven.
WATCH THE VIDEO TO CHECK OUT SVEN RAPHAEL’s FAVORITE PANAMA HATS!
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