On the hindsight, Panama hats do look a bit similar to the straw hats and to the uninitiated, it might be difficult to perceive the sublime artistry that goes behind making a Panama hat. Patrons of the Panama variant cherish the hat not just for the veritable skills of the craftsmen involved, but also for the history and tradition that clings to every fiber of its soul.
Dissecting a straw hat
The comparison of straw hats to the premium Panama hats can be analogous to the debate between a cheap and expensive pair of earphones. Though the earphones look alike and seem to have the same features on the veneer, what sets them apart is the quality of the music that reverberates from them.
An ordinary straw hat uses straws that are cheaper, easier to draw out and are manufactured en masse. In fact, many hats sold as “straw hats” are actually made from highly refined paper, the most common being Toyo and Shantung straw. Paper fibers are cheap to produce and respond poorly to moisture and sweat.
As with all industrial products, the straw hat is effective for its intended purpose but nothing out of the ordinary. And since it is not hand woven, thousands of straw hats can be flushed into the market making it ubiquitous across the world. While there is nothing wrong with wearing a cheaply made straw hat, quality straw hats such as Panama hats have added functionality benefits along with a rich culture and tradition that justifies their price.
The metamorphosis of a Panama hat
For a hat that is so widely admired, the etymology behind its name is rather ironic, as it is not a product that arose from Panama as many believe – but rather a few thousand miles down south, from the villages of Ecuador. The hat was named so when a handwoven straw hat sporting President Roosevelt became front page news across the U.S. while he was visiting Panama, to survey the construction of the Panama Canal.
Fast forward to today, the palm weaving hamlets of Ecuador are still busy at work with producing these light-as-air high crown hats. The process of making a Panama hat is both arduous and time-consuming – it involves carefully selecting leaves of the toquilla palm with a light green hue, which is boiled and then dried in the tropical winds and over specific times across the day. The leaves are concealed from sunlight, as direct exposure could affect the texture and thus, the hat.
The processed leaves are then bleached, washed and dried to give it the even whitish tone that Panama hats are known for. These strands of straw are then cautiously bundled and sent to the weavers, who can take up to several months to finish a hat, depending on the number of entwining straws that the hat receives.
Looking at the work involved and the different segments of the Ecuadorian village populace involved in the process, it is quite apparent why Panama hats are expensive compared to the factory made more commonplace straw hats. A Panama hat is said to be so unique that it can be drawn out completely through the hole of a ring, without losing it shape or structure while it comes out. Though we wouldn’t recommend testing this legend.
And within these incredible hats, there exists a subset named the Montecristi, which is widely regarded as the gold standard of brand Panama. The name Montecristi comes from the town of Montecristi which is famous the world over for their phenomenally-difficult-to-weave hats, and for hosting the best hat weavers in Ecuador.
A Montecristi hat has nearly twice the number of straws when compared to an average Panama hat and takes about six to eight months for a master weaver to create a hat from start to finish.
Nonetheless, however impeccable and ornate the hat looks to be, the Panama hats do come with their minuscule share of irregularities and imperfections. This is inevitable since the hats are completely woven, trimmed and molded by hand. In a way, it is this imperfectness that adds to the allure of a Panama hat. Nothing in this world is perfect, and the hat stands testimony to the tenacity of the weaver towards inching closer to perfection – which ultimately holds the essence of a Panama hat.
Usually, the top-notch hats are sold in the market at a value which is up to fifty times higher than what the weaver is being paid, leading to a massive inequality in wages. Ultrafino is looking to disrupt this unfair practice by paying weavers their fair share and helping them lead better lives. This makes Ultrafino’s Panama hats a tad expensive compared to the other Panama hat sellers – then again, it is a small price to pay for helping weavers stay away from exploitation and helping preserve the culture and tradition behind these legendary hats.