I did a double take yesterday when my teenage daughter bounced into the room to show off her new bellbottom pants. Fashion styles come and go, following the relentless arc of an invisible pendulum, but it has been quite a while since I've seen a pair of bell bottoms.    Some fashion cycles are longer than others however and, sadly, my lifespan to date has fallen entirely during the off years for men's hats.  My grandfather wore a hat, but my father didn't.  I've always felt that a classic fedora was the pinnacle of male sartorial excellence.  

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I went looking for a replacement for the aging and battered straw fedora that I kept in the closet for special occasions.  In the hat shop I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time stroking the graceful brims of these woven works of art, trying on the different styles in front of the mirror and generally relishing the nostalgia value of the moment.  I kept being drawn back to a special hat locked behind glass in the showcase near the front of the shop.  It was a real beauty, a tightly woven, slightly off-white Montecriste Optimo with a black grosgrain ribbon.  The price was a breathtaking $9000 U.S. and when I asked the store owner, an expat Cuban named Roberto, if the price tag was a typo he just smiled.  He gave me the look that I give my son when he has so completely missed the point of something that I don't know where to even begin explaining.  Then he asked me if I knew anything at all about Panama Hats...

Thus began a quest to find out where these classic head toppers originate, how they are made and what makes them so damned cool.

They aren't made in Panama

The first thing you learn about Panama Hats is that they aren't made in Panama.  Not in Panama City, not even in the country of Panama.  Ground zero in the world of Panama Hats is the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca  in the Andes.  This is where most of the world's Panama Hats are produced, but true aficionados look to the small town of Montecristi, on Ecuador's coastal plain, where fewer hats are produced, but the workmanship is finer and the quality (and, alas, the price) is higher. 

If we want to get to the heart of the Panama hat mystery,  Ecuador is the place we need to look  The first mention of the woven hats of Ecuador comes to us from the Spanish explorers who encountered them during their conquest of the area in the 16th century.  Natives from the area around Montecristi in the province of Manabi wove a type of hat that reminded the conquistadors of a Spanish hat called a Toque. Hence, Toquilla for the local straw and paja toquilla for the hats they wove from it. The art of weaving hats expanded to the surrounding provinces of Cuenca, Azuay and Cañar as the demand grew.  

The term Panama Hat came into popular use in the late 1800's when the visionary Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, initiated the project that eventually became the Panama Canal1. As you might imagine, the demand for a high quality, durable hat grew rapidly among European workers who began to arrive for the project.  The experienced hatmakers of Ecuador happily rose to meet the challenge and the "Panama Hats," that they supplied soon earned an international reputation.  When President Theodore Roosevelt returned from visiting the construction of the Canal wearing one of these hats, the American press dubbed it his "Panama Hat," and the name stuck.

How are they made?

In the coolness of the morning, the pajero (straw gatherer) walks through the overgrown and already humid Ecuadorian jungle looking for shoots or cogollos of the carludovica palmata or Panama Hat Palm2,3.  This grassy plant (division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyclanthales, family Cyclanthaceae) looks like a true palm but isn't. It grows wild throughout Central America and Bolivia and has all the right characteristics for excellent hat making, but only if the skilled eyes of the pajero select the straws before the central shoot has opened, cuts it with his machete and bundles it for processing back at home. Each shoot is about as big around as a finger and as long as an arm. The heavy work of harvesting the cogollos is typically performed by men.

The preparation of the straw begins when the coarse outer leaves and center veins of the cogollos are removed using a small steel tool like an icepick. Then the straws are placed in boiling water for a moment to soften them, then they are placed in a wooden box for bleaching. A metal pan containing a bed of burning charcoal salted with chunks of raw sulfur is placed inside the box.  The sulfur smoke is allowed to bleach the straw for several hours, then the straws are dried carefully in preparation for weaving.

The tejedor, or weaver begins a new hat by laying out four groups of straw, each containing 8 to 12 individual strands depending on the thickness of the strands and the quality of the hat being made.  The four groups are interlaced at right angles to each other.  As the strands are pulled together, the ends are woven in a counter-clockwise pattern around the center forming a round disk called the rosetta. After the rosetta is formed, near the top of the hat's crown, the individual strands of straw are separated out and the hat weaving continues. As each straw is used up another is added to replace it, and the circular pattern continues. The result is a series of concentric circles called vueltas. As the weaving proceeds the rough shape of the hat is formed. 

Hand weaving is a slow and laborious process and the finer the weave, the longer it takes to make the hat. Six to eight weeks is typical for hand weaving a decent Montecristi, and the finest quality hat can take months to complete. Both men and women weavers engage in this painstaking and physically difficult work.

Once the hat is fully formed, a specialist called the rematador finishes off the brim with a special technique called a backweave.  The backweave bends each straw back towards the crown forming a bonded edge that won't unravel.  When the backweave is complete, another specialist, the cortador, trims off the excess straw ends.  The cortador first uses scissors for the rough work, then a razor blade to finish the job. The trimmed hat is passed to the apaledor, who pounds the hat with special mallets made of a dense tropical hardwood to soften the straw.  This is a critical step because if the apaledor uses too much force the straw is damaged and if he uses too little, the straw remains stiff and brittle.  As the hats are pounded, the apaledor also applies powdered sulfur to further the bleaching process.

After pounding, the hat goes back to the cortador for final trimming then is passed along to the planchador for ironing. The planchador heats his irons over the coals of a wood fire as he secures the Panama Hat blank to a wooden form. The hat is ironed by the planchador to give the woven straw a smooth shiny finish prior to its sale to the hat dealer who will block it, add the sweatband and hatband prior to sale.

Now take a second and revisit the idea that the process, thus far, takes about two months of long days performing delicate hand work.  That's an extraordinary effort, and we're not even finished yet. 

Blocking

In short, blocking is the process of shaping an unfinished hat.  The long version of the story is that blocking and finishing a hat is every bit as much of an art as weaving it.  The blocking process can make the difference between a good hat and an excellent one. Traditionally, all Panama hats were hand-blocked, a slow and laborious process that allows the experience and skill of the blocker to fully realize the potential of a finely woven hat.  Today however the vast majority of Panama hats on the market are machine-blocked on hydraulic presses that apply intense heat and pressure to the hat to mold it to a metal hat form.  Afterwards, a clear sizing material is used to coat the hat.  This stiffens the straw and helps the hat keep its shape.  

Hand-blocking like the weaving itself, is rapidly becoming a lost art as the quicker and less expensive process of machine blocking dominates the trade as those who know the secrets retire or die without passing their knowledge on to the next generation.  Brent Black, the owner of Panama Hats of the Pacific4, says that there are fewer than six individuals in the United States today who know how to properly hand block a Montecristi Fedora hat.  A quick review of the steps involved leads me to believe him.

Hand blocking begins when the blocker steams an unshaped hat and then carefully stretches it over a hand made wooden blocking form.  Hatters may have hundreds or even thousands of hat forms in their shops, one for each size and style of hat they offer. Each form has two pieces, the base, over which the steamed hat is pulled, and a male crown form that is used to press the softened straw down into the crevices The steamed woven straw is gently massaged over the form and then left to dry completely for a couple of days.  

Next the brim of the hat is shaped in a similar process.  For this step, the hat is placed upside down onto a wooden form called a flange that has a hole in the center for the crown to pass through. The brim of the hat is ironed over the flange to mold its shape based on the hats size and the desired brim width.   If the the hat being made requires a lip or upturned edge on the brim, like the Plantation, then the straw is steamed once again and molded with a special hatters tool called a pencil roll. 

The final touches are sewing in the sweatband on the inside of the crown, and adding the hatband to the outside.  Even these steps are crucial to the overall quality of the hat.  Aficionados appreciate the extra effort and attention to detail of hand sewing the sweatband into the hat.  After all, machine sewing pierces the straws causing problems if you ever want to re-block the hat. Quality is cumulative.   

How Panama hats are graded

Knowing how a Panama hat is made makes it a little bit easier to understand the $9,000 price tag that I saw in that San Juan display case.  Consider that there may be months of work weaving the hat, then weeks more blocking, finishing shipping and marketing all adding to the final cost.  Like any hand made product, the cost reflects the time that has gone into making the hats, but that's an awful lot of money for a hat.  How would you even know if you were getting the quality you were paying for?  The answer to that question leads us into the somewhat arcane world of Panama hat grading.

There are five main factors to be considered in grading the quality of a Panama hat.  In rough order of importance they are:

  1. The fineness of the weave. The finer the individual straws used in the hat, the smaller and tighter the weave and the longer it will take to finish the hat.  Reducing the width of the straws by half increases the number of weaves and, ultimately, the weaving time by a factor of four.  A finer weave also takes the subtle curves of the blocking better and represents the highest expression of the weaver's art.
  2. The evenness of the weave. If the weave is perfectly even, there won't be any irregularities, gaps, bumps or holes in the pattern.  Every row will be the same height and nothing will disrupt the perfect pattern of the woven straw.  Unfortunately, in our imperfect world, no two straws are exactly the same diameter, and when one straw ends, another must take it's place, and the new one will be slightly different.  These problems all increase as the weave gets finer, so that ultimately even the highest quality Panama hats will have some slight imperfections. 
  3. The color of the straw. To some extent, the amount of bleaching the straws receive and thus their final color is dependent on where the hat was made.  In Cuenca, the hats are commonly heavily bleached in peroxide to make them a very pale white.  Taken to an extreme, this process can make the straw brittle, shortening the hat's lifespan and giving it an unnatural feel.  The Montecristi hats are bleached with sulfur fumes, a process that results in a light, but not pure white color closer to ivory.  Almost all Panama hats will have some subtle inconsistencies in coloration, reflecting their origins as a natural organic product. 
  4. The blocking and finishing. Only the best Panama hats are hand blocked, so if you find one that is, be prepared to pay for the extra attention to detail.  True aficionados see the finest Panama hats as true works of art, and hand blocking and careful hand stitching of the sweatband and ribbon are the finishing touches.
  5. The size of the hat. It's kind of obvious when you think of it: a bigger hat takes longer to weave so it's going to ultimately cost more.  So a larger sized hat will cost more than a smaller one, a hat with a wider brim will cost more than one with a small brim. High quality Panama hats are sold according to standard hat sizes rather than Small, Medium or Large.

Panama Hat Styles

There are many styles of Panama hat, but they all revolve around a few common roots that I will attempt to describe below.  I suppose a talented ASCII artist could take a shot at depicting these graceful forms, but absent that, I'd refer you to one of the excellent websites on the subject.  A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

Classic Fedora - This is the most common hat style of all. The brim of the Fedora is typically 2.5" - 3" in width and turns up in the back and down in the front. The crown, viewed from the side rises smartly, the descends gracefully towards the back. The pinched crown, is blocked in a teardrop shape when viewed from above. Fedora's come in a variety of brim widths. If you can only afford one Panama hat, this is likely the one you'll want to own.  Think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird5

Plantation - The Plantation style has the same crown as the classic Fedora, but sports a wider brim, typically 3" to 4" in width, with a rolled edge. Think Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind.  

Optimo - This is the style with the distinctive center ridge. This style originated when the word got out that you could roll these finely woven hats up for storage or travel. When the hats were unrolled it created the center ridge, so the Optimo just formalized the obvious. Some still use this style as a roll-up travel hat, but rolling any straw hat will eventually lead to a break and it cannot be rewoven. Think Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca.

Buying a Panama hat 

Let's say that after reading all this you've decided you need to adopt one of these hand made legends for your own. As they say about those silly Swiss watches, "you don't really own it, you just get to take care of it for awhile."  Take your time finding a vendor for your Panama hat.  Don't, absolutely do not, purchase one of those "bargain hats" on EBay, you'll only be disappointed.  

Ultimately you get what you pay for so remember the hundreds of hours that are required to create a real Montecriste Fedora, and be prepared to pay for it.  If you buy from a vendor specializing in Panama hats, like Brent Black, your purchase is, in effect, a down payment on the next hat to be woven. Concerned hatters like Brent are helping to keep the Panama hat industry alive by encouraging the dwindling ranks of older weavers to pass their trade on to the next generation.  They are also making it attractive for younger weavers to enter the trade by opening up the market for the high quality hats that keep the industry healthy. Their hope is to save this art by creating a demand for it and showing the younger weavers that the trade is appreciated world wide.

Unless you can travel to Equador and buy your hat locally, the low end pricing for a mid-quality Montecriste is about $250 U.S. The museum grade hats run upwards of $25,000 U.S.  Visit Brent Black's website for some beautiful pics of his "Rare Treasure" hats.  

Got a big head?

When you purchase a fine hat, you have every reason to expect a perfect fit, here's how to measure your own head and translate it into a standard hat size. Get a dressmaker's tape measure and carefully measure the circumference of your head, from the center of your forehead, to a point just above the "bump" in about the middle of the back of your head.  The tape should fall just above the top of you ears on either side, just where you want the sweatband of your hat to ride.  Once you've found the sweet spot, read the measurement to the nearest 1/8 inch (or 1/2 cm).  If you intend to wear your hat outdoors in windy conditions on a regular basis, downsize 1/8 for a snug fit.

Now use the chart below, to determine your hat size. 

NOTE: These are U.S. Standard Hat sizes, English hatters use a slightly different system

    Head Size	       Hat Size (U.S.)
Inches Cm.
21-1/4 54 6 3/4
21-1/2 55 6 7/8
21-7/8 56 7
22-1/4 57 7 1/8
22-5/8 58 7 1/4
23 1/4 59 7 3/8
23-5/8 60 7 1/2
24 61 7 5/8
24-3/8 62 7 3/4
24-5/8 63 7 7/8
25-1/8 64 8

Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed

So, in order to complete the research for this piece properly, I find myself compelled to examine one of these legendary hats personally.  I think it's only fair to do an informal usability study to sort of tie up the loose ends. I mean I'm recommending them to you all right? Well, that's the elaborate rationalization that I plan to offer to my SO.... because,  I am in the process of adopting one of Brent's Monticristi Afficionados for my very own! To have and to hold, as they say. 

Izzat bitchin or what?

-GOM 

PS,

For the record I still hate bellbottom pants!

===================&===================

Sources
1 Panama Canal History: http://www.canalmuseum.com/
2 Panama Hat Palm: http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/sci/A0837448.html &
3 Hat Palm picture: http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed/pictures/p03/pages/carludovica-palmata.htm
4
 "The World's Finest Panama Hats®" No kiddin, it's trademarked: http://www.brentblack.com/
5 Panama Hats in the movies: http://www.imdb.com/

Copyright 2003 TheMeyerGroup All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited. Removal of this notice constitutes violation of copyright.

Pan`a*ma" hat` (?).

A fine plaited hat, made in Central America of the young leaves of a plant (Carludovica palmata).

 

© Webster 1913.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.