The journey of a Panama hat from Paja Toquilla straw to a finished hat is a wonderful and incredible one!
Paja Toquilla Straw
The Carludovica palmata, or Paja Toquilla, is a palm-like plant which is used for weaving Panama hats and is native to South America. The straw for the hats grows in the hot and humid coastal equatorial region of Ecuador. The bulb and outer husk is cleaned and stripped and the soft middle palm leaves are washed in a sulphur mixture and hung out to dry in the sun.
The sun bleaches the straw and makes it ready for weaving. The straw is then taken to the local market to be sold to the weavers - historically, this is done on a Sunday before Mass for the straw to be blessed. Ecuador is blessed with equatorial sun makes the straw stronger and pliable and hence, easier to split into strands and weave.
Panama hat weaving is a cottage industry carried out in the simple homes of ordinary country folk in the districts of Manabi and Azuay in Ecuador. It is a unique skill handed down from generation to generation and, usually, takes one or two days for a hat for a standard hat to be produced and, depending on the fineness of the weave, a “Montecristi” hat will take up to four months to be woven.
The weaver starts the process by taking a palm frons and splitting it with their nails into fine strands. The finer the strands, the finer grade the hat. Once woven, the raw hoods are sold by the weavers, mainly to larger Panama hat distributors and companies who are able to complete the next steps of the process.
When the weaver sell their work, it is a ‘hood’ and is not in a sellable state and has several processes to make the hood ready for hat making.
The Factory Process
The local factories and distributors play an important role to the Panama hat process, often less spoken of, as it is they who prepare the semi-finished hats, ready to be sold to the international markets and ensuring the workmanship of each Panama is shown to its very best.
Firstly they are quality checked and sorted according to fineness of weave. The excess straw is trimmed off by an edge specialist called an azocadora, who ensures the hats do not fray. The hats are then washed and bleached and/or dyed in large vats, to give the straw a unified colour.
Once the hats have been sundried out in the Ecuadorean sunshine, the natural oils of the Paja Toquilla are hammered out to make the straw soft and shiny, and then the edges are cut and properly finished.
Finally, the hats are then pressed lightly to recover the original hat (hood) shape and branded with ‘fabricado en Ecuador’ - marking their authenticity. Only then, as Genuine Panama hats, are they ready to be sold for export to milliners and hat manufacturers globally, where they are shaped / blocked and trimmed for the consumer.
Blocking / Shaping
The Panama hoods (unfinished hat shape cones) can be blocked either by hand or on large heated steel blocks, which press the hat into the desired shape. The brim is then cut and trimmed, and an inner band (pad) such as leather or fabric is sewn in to make it to the correct size. To finish off the Panama hat, the outer trim or band is added as required.
These days, the increasing popular Panama hat comes in a whole array of shapes and styles – not just trilbies and folders - for both men and women, and is available in a wide range of colours, weaves, patterns and qualities, not just traditional straw colours. Take your pick from our great selection!