Have you ever taken time to admire the beautifully fine weave on a high-quality Panama hat? The intricate detail looks machine made, but the highest-quality hats are made by hand in artisan villages in Ecuador. See these hat making experts in action and learn more about what your hat is made of with this step-by-step photo guide.
The Tradition of the Panama Hat
In spite of the name, Panama hats are not actually from Panama. These hats are and always have been the handiwork of Ecuadorian artisans. While it’s not clear exactly how they came to be known as Panama hats, each step of the hat construction process happens in forests, homes and small workshops in Ecuador. This craft tradition is often passed down from generation to generation within families and communities. Older generations hone their craft over the years and pass their knowledge down to the younger generations. This craft tradition is not limited to a specific age or gender. Anyone who gains the skill or knowledge can take part in the hat making process.
Because many hat makers work in their own homes, their “factories” are often simple workshop rooms or outdoor areas with the right equipment. For the most part, these hats are made by hand. Though simple tools and machinery are used in some parts of the process, the weaving is 100% done by hand. Skilled craftspeople make tight, fine weaves to build a hat from the crown out. Each step in the hat making process is done by a specific person with finely honed skills for that specific step. But before all this can happen, the straw must be harvested.
Step 1: Obtaining Collogos for Hatmaking
The lush, tropical forests of coastal Ecuador contain many valuable natural resources. For Panama hats, the toquilla palm (Carludovica Palmata) is the most valuable of them all. This lush, palm-like plant produces beautiful leaves and colorful flowers. It’s the fibrous material inside collogos, the unopened new leaf shoots of the plant, that is important for hat making.
Harvesters go into forested land on foot and use sharp blades to cut leaf shoots by hand. Choosing the right leaf shoots takes practice; choose too early and there won’t be enough fibrous material inside, but choose too late and the material in the shoot will be too leafy to form straw. Rather than simply cutting off every shoot on the plant, harvesters cut only those shoots they need to keep the plants alive. This is a sustainable harvesting practice that has no devastating impact on the forest.
Step 2: Turning Green Plant Fibers into Straw
Once the collogos are harvested, bundled and brought back to the village, they’re opened to reveal long, grass-like shoots. Each collogo contains several shoots. Like a stalk of celery or a head of romaine lettuce, the shoots on the outside are darker and tougher. These are peeled back to reveal the tender, lighter-colored shoots toward the heart of the collogo. These shoots, which are the ones that are destined to become toquilla straw for Panama hats, are called tallos.
With the shoots separated and the dark, tough pieces discarded, the tallos are gathered into bundles and made into straw. The first step is to cook the tallos in boiling water and then hang them to dry. This causes each little strand to rapidly dry and harden into straw rather than withering. Cooking causes the green shoots to lose their color, and after drying, the straw is a pale yellow color. Some of this straw will be used as-is, but much of it will go through a sulfur bleaching process to create a fine, colorless straw for white Panama hats.
Step 3: Starting the Hat
The cured, dried and bleached (or unbleached) straw is then handed over to a weaver. This is often an independent artisan who buys the straw from the harvester. Weavers are among the most skilled artisans in the Panama hat making process. They are usually older men or women who have a great deal of skill and knowledge in the hat making process. This experience allows weavers to quickly eye each bundle, pick the best pieces and discard any that don’t meet standards.
After cutting the acceptable straw to an even length, the weaver gets started by hand-weaving a tiny circular mat. This forms the center of the hat’s top. The weaver gradually adds more and more pieces of straw until the tiny circular mat becomes a large flat plantilla, forming the very top of the Panama hat. The weaver uses only their hands at this point and can form the plantilla in a relaxed seated position.
Step 4: Weaving the Crown and Brim
The hat is then transferred to a special stand that allows the weaver to keep the flat plantilla in place while adding woven sides to the crown and weaving the brim out around the entire circumference of the hat. The stand consists of a simple hat form attached to a long support piece with feet on the bottom to keep the whole assembly stable. The weaver puts a large cylindrical weighted piece on top holding everything in place and keeping the plantilla flat.
Leaning over the weighted piece, often with a cushion on top for comfort, the weaver works from the edge of the plantilla down to the end of the crown and out to the edge of the brim. This posture allows the weaver to get close to the straw to see the intricate detail in the weaving. Again, at this point, all of this weaving is done entirely by hand. The entire process can take one to three months depending on the weaver’s skill level and the hat size.
When the weaver finally reaches the edge of the brim, there is a spray of straw all around. However, the weaver doesn’t do anything with these ends. The highest-quality Panama hats are then sent along to other experts for careful finishing.
Step 5: Finishing the Brim
Montecristi and other high-quality Panama hats have their brims finished in a painstakingly careful backweaving process completed by artisans with special skills in brim finishing. These artisans are known as le rematador or la rematadora, depending on their gender. Each piece of straw around the brim is carefully woven back toward the hat to create a uniform edge. This not only keeps the weave secure but also gives the edge of the brim a crisp, polished look. However, that polishing process does not end with la rematadora/le rematador. Still more specialized artisans will finish the brim with machine-like precision.
The handiwork of la rematadora/le rematador is then tightened and perfected by another backweaving specialist known as la azocadora/le azocador (again, depending on gender.) These craftspeople pull the fine, backwoven brim straw tight to ensure it stays in place. Though this may seem simple, it’s not. This is a painstakingly careful process that requires pressure firm enough to create a tight bind but applied so patiently and directly that it does not break the straw or cause the brim to lose its precise shape. This usually requires several passes of tightening around the brim to complete.
Step 6: Polishing Up the Brim
With the brim tightening finished, yet another specialist gets to work. La cortadora/le cortador trims off all the loose ends of the straw, but not to a finished length. The brims will still look relatively rough at this point. But, there is no longer a large spray of loose straw forming a halo around the crown. If there are other long straw ends on the hat, la cortadora/le cortador will trim them off. Why is there straw leftover at this point? Well, la cortadora/le cortador is also responsible for washing the hat, and these hats then need to hang dry to avoid any moisture buildup, which might discolor or warp the hats. So, they’re pinned to a line from the loose straw ends. Hats are also bleached during this step if necessary.
After they’re cleaned and bleached, a worker known as la apaleadora/le apaleador beats each individual hat with a mallet-like wooden tool. This hard impact softens the straw and also lightens its color, resulting in a flattened but flexible hat with a more refined look and feel. The hats then go back to la cortadora/le cortador, who will finish the hat with sharp scissors or a razor, cutting off all the remaining unwoven straw ends so the hat is smooth and neat all over. Low-quality Panama hats don’t enjoy this careful finishing process. The backwoven brim is a sign of high quality—any stitching, glue or unfinished edges around the brim are an indicator of lesser quality.
Step 7: The Hat Takes Its Final Form
With the hats trimmed, backwoven and beaten, they’re a bit misshapen. It won’t take long to fix that. La planchadora/le planchador uses a hat form similar to that used during weaving, only placed on a flat surface, and irons the hat’s crown and brim to remove any wrinkles and make it crisp. Then a blocker will take the ironed hat and use traditional steaming methods to form the hats into different shapes.
Up to this point, it’s not clear what finished style the hats will take on. All Panama hats are woven and ironed into in the same basic shape. The blocker uses steam and specialized tools such as hat forms and stretchers to soften and shape the hat with creases, indentations and other style indicators. The finished product may look like a cowboy-style gambler hat, distinctive optimo hat, classic teardrop fedora or gatsby fedora. Even pork pie hats and other iconic hat shapes can be blocked into the generic Panama hat form. This means that no matter which of our beautiful Panama hat styles suits your taste, you’ll be getting the same carefully crafted quality.
Panama hats, although made in Ecuador, are so called because they were popularized & worn by workers during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early part of the 20th century.