By Alli Sinclair
My first trip to Ecuador entailed traversing some lesser-known trails, thanks to three Ecuadorians I’d met who were on their annual holiday. They adopted me as their pet gringa, and I happily played the role, lapping up the attention my personal tour guides bestowed on me. (They probably felt sorry for me traveling alone but I actually enjoy my own company at times!) Between the four of us, we had a lot of laughs and created some unforgettable memories.
During our travels we ventured into the many mercados that Ecuador offers, and the ones that impressed me most were the markets just outside of Cuenca, in the southern part of Ecuador. On Sundays, Gualaceo has an amazing fruit and veggie market; Chordaleg is renowned for a wonderful array of local crafts including jumpers (pullovers), scarves, and Sigsig not only has a strange, modern metallic piece of art in the town’s centuries old plaza, but it is the perfect place to learn about the history of the Panama hat.
Yes, the Panama hat. We’re not in Panama, Dorothy, we’re talking Ecuador.
Legend has it that President Theodore Roosevelt brought the hats to popularity in North America when photos were taken of him wearing one while visiting Panama. But that’s not the only story. As the hats were shipped through the Isthmus canal in Panama before they hit the shores around the world, someone mistakenly thought the hats came from the country famous for its canal. Who knew one person’s misunderstanding would lead to the rest of the world following suit?
Ecuadorians call their hats sombreros de paja toquilla (hats of toquilla straw), but they’re used to tourists referring to them as a Panama hat. Available in a range of colours for both men and women, the Panama offers perfect for protection from the sun and makes a pretty awesome souvenir that will lead to some interesting conversations upon return to your home country.
The fedora is the most common style of Panama hats in North America, but in the U.K., the Optimo is the most popular. Another style, known as the Teardrop, or C-crown, is shaped like a tear when viewed from above and it’s worn with the point of the tear position at the front of the head. This particular hat is very popular with the indigenous women in the region of Cuenca.
Other styles include the Breton, Plantation (Gambler), Snap brim, Pork Pie (think Buster Keaton), Stingy brim, Boater and the Trilby.
As with most crafts, the price boils down to the quality of product. Although there doesn’t appear to be an official grading system, vendors will happily inform you of theirs and after a few hours wandering in and out of shops and stalls, you’ll get a feel as to what is good quality and what isn’t. Most people look for the fineness of the weaving, which can definitely help when choosing a hat of high quality, but the consistency of the weave and minimal gaps, bumps, and holes are what make the difference between a good hat and a fine hat.
Another way people judge the quality of a Panama hat is the whether you can roll it up and pass it through a wedding ring—I kid you not. The first time I saw this done my eyes bulged and mouth fell open. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. It can be done but only if the hat is of very, very good quality. Expect these hats to cost you USD150 or more. Some craftsmen might sell you a USD20 or USD60 hat and tell you it’s possible to roll up your hat, stick it in a box and unroll it again and it won’t lose it’s shape. I’ve seen enough examples where this didn’t ring true. Consider yourself informed…
While the hats in Sigsig are absolutely beautiful, it’s the ones from Montecristi, near the coast of Ecuador, that have the Panama hat enthusiasts raving. Renowned for their flawless craftsmanship and supple weave while remaining strong and in-shape, the Montecristi hats have been around since the 1600s.
Even though the Panama hat is still popular, the art form is dying. In towns like Sigsig and Montecristi, where the master weavers rely on their handiwork to support themselves and their families, the younger generations are pursuing careers in other fields. In its heyday, Montecristi had nearly 2,000 artisans weaving hats, but today there are less than 50, and some Panama hat experts will say it’s less than 20. Regardless of the exact figure, the skill required to weave a beautiful, high-quality Panama hat is in danger of being lost to the world. I don’t know if there’s such an organisation such as Endangered Crafts of the World, but it would be amazing if such a group exists. Hmmm…. I’ve just had an idea. Anyone want to join me?
And for those who are interested in learning a little more about the people behind the hats, here's a mini-documentary that gives some food for thought.