Making Panama hats is not easy. It takes the hard work of ten people or so to finish this piece of art. Originating from Ecuador and not Panama by popular belief, these hats are handmade by top-notch skilled Ecuadorians. Like baking a cake, there are many processes to undergo before it comes together into a beautiful, high quality product.
So what lies behind the making of these Panama hats you see today?
It is the Ecuadorian locals who intricately makes it come together. Splitting the roles to a different party for each process is a norm as locals prefer to work based on their strengths. Here’s a peek at some of the skilled hands behind the processes to make the Panama hat.
Straw dealers: These are the people who pick the straws (palm-like plant called Paja Toquilla) and are responsible for splitting and ‘curing’ the straw by boiling and bleaching them later. Ecuadorians still keep to their traditional ways of using pots and coals for boiling purposes.
Fun fact: Skilled locals are able to strip down the straw to the thickness of dental floss!
Hot waters, literally: The Paja Toquilla should be constantly submerged into boiling water with continuous stirring so that the strands do not stick together. Photo credit: Brent Black
Sulfur box: Boiled straws will be placed into a box which will later be clenched shut tightly and placed above hot coal. Hot sulfur smoke will go up to the box and bleach the straws. Photo credit: Brent Black
Weavers: These are the skilled Ecuadorians responsible to weave the Paja Toquilla after it has been cut, washed and dried. Weavers create the foundation of the Panama hat. If the weaved crown of the hat were to break, the hat will be susceptible to losing its shape. The duration for the weaving process is dependent on how fine the straw is.
Fun fact: The finer the weave, the longer it takes for the weaving process! Sometimes, it takes months to complete a high quality grade Panama hat.
Star sign: You can identify a Panama hat by its star-shaped pattern at the center of the crown. The top of the crown is referred to as the Plantilla. Photo credit: HatofCain Facebook
Brim finishers: After trimming of the hat is done, the hat will be passed on to people in charge of finishing up the brim of the hat. This role is not easy either. Ensuring the weave is tight so that the hat does not unravel and lose its shape, these hands patiently and intricately weave the outer circumference of the hat. Despite the laborious process, these locals still maintain quality in their work.
Trimmers: After the weaving is done, it will be passed down to Ecuadorian locals who will neaten the hat up by trimming the excess straw. Trimmed straws are saved for repair work should any hats needs to be altered later.
Fun Fact: Locals who trim the ends of the hat will also scrub as well as bleach the hat again to give the hat a fresher look.
In excess: Extra straws strands like you see above will be trimmed for safekeeping. Photo credit: GoBeyondSG
Blockers: These are the people who will use a mould to give better shape to the hats. There are two methods; hand blocking and machine blocking. For hand blockers, they will manually push down the Panama hats onto the blocks. This motion will be evenly done around to hat to balance out the shape of the hat. After hand blocking, the blocker will iron the hats to better shape them.
As for machine blocking, locals will place the hats faced down, and allow the heat from the machine that is pressing down on it to shape it.
Fun fact: Since the sale of Panama hats is an indigenous business and machines are expensive, one machine blocker would sometimes be placed in the heart of a marketplace where the entire community are allowed to share it.
Sweatband/Ribbon fixers: These locals do the finishing touches. They are in charge of securing sweatbands inside the hat as well as the ribbon on the outside of the hat.
Fun fact: One is also spoilt for choice for the sweatband/ribbons that give the hat a finishing touch. Leather sweatbands and ribbons as well as fabric ribbons come in various colours.
Traders: These locals are in charge of grading and buying hats in marketplaces. One can judge the grade and quality of a hat through:
- Fineness of weave; refers to how thin the strands of straws used to weave are. Thinner straws make it harder to weave. More work and time are spent on finely woven hats. It is no surprise why they are priced relatively higher than the coarser woven ones.
- Evenness of weave; refers to how the thickness and thinness of the weaving. If the weave is of consistent size throughout, the hat is even and will be of better grade and quality.
Wavy VS Fine: As above, wavy weaving (right) is cheaper than the fine weaving (left) because fine weaving would take a longer and harder time to complete. One needs the skills to intricately weave a hat finely and yet maintain its quality. Photo credit: Kauffman
- Colour of hat; Dying of hats would mean more time and resources like Peroxide to use to finish the hats. More time and resources spent are likely to point to higher costs.
Photo credit: DigitalBungalow
- Size of hat; the bigger the hat, the more costly the hat would be. ‘More time and resources spent’ reason applies here.
Going through the processes mandatory to make these hats makes one wonder no more why these hats are of so high in quality and costs too! Its value to the culture of Ecuadorians is recognized by UNESCO, which has included these hats in their list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Ecuador’.
Bearing in mind all the complicated processes, one will never look at the Panama hat as just a regular hat ever again!