The Panama Hat: A Complete Guide to World’s Most Famous Hat

Even if hats are not part of a gentleman’s basic ensemble these days, the Panama hat is a classic. It gives off a grandiose sophistication that fits your man of the hour. These hats, however, have a colorful history in them.

Panama hats are traditional brimmed straw hats, usually with a contrasting band. While they are an icon of modern-day Panama, the hat’s history is not many expect. These top-quality fashion accouterments keep the sun off your face while keeping a stylish look.

If you’re considering if wearing a Panama Hat is for you, keep reading. We’ll give you everything you need about this beautiful handwoven hat. From its colorful history to its grading, take a look and be an instant expert with our comprehensive guide.

The History of the Panama Hat

The history of the Panama hat goes back to a different country, and it’s not Panama. We’re talking about Ecuador, which is a little down south. Why?

Going by history, the first Panama hat came from Ecuador. It first started in the cottage industry of the Ecuadorian coast. It also came from the smaller towns along the Andes – both locales known for their master weavers. Indigent areas like Guayas and Manabi weaved such straw hats.

Ecuador is a prime location for the development of a hat made of natural materials. Even back then, it is not a top tourist destination, but it still has people going around. People always loved the “Panama hat” as a way to stave off the heat.

Back in the day, the hat came to a town called Montecristi. They had several names back in the day, including:

  • Montecristi hats
  • Jipijapa
  • Toquilla

The terms toquilla and Montecristi hats are still common parlances up to this day. While it’s easy to say that an “authentic” Panama hat only comes from Ecuador, that’s not right anymore. Here’s why.

The Panama Route to the United States

Many people came through California via the Panama route. During the mid-1800s, the California Gold Rush created great interest in crossing across the Atlantic. At the time, overland travel within the US itself was a treacherous choice. Panama to California route was the fastest option, taking 40 days worth of ship travel and overland movement.

During this time, the Panama Railroad also became a vital piece of transportation. It brought people from all walks of life traveling from the isthmus to California. This slew of overland traffic went to Panama, and many products from the locale became popular.

A few decades before, the sombreros de paja toquilla or “hats made of toquilla straw” were selling. People loved the design and how airy they were, which, in hot and humid Panama, was everything. The best quality hats kept coming from the Manabi towns of Montecristi and Jipijapa. People started to seek them more and more until two events happened in the 1830s Ecuador.

In 1835, a Spanish entrepreneur came to Panama and saw the beauty of the Panama hat. Manuel Alfaro settled in Montecristi and fell in love with the hat. He loved it so much that he invested a lot of time and money to make it his main form of business.

Manuel Alfaro streamlined production more than anyone, creating a network of artisans creating a smooth production line. His goal was to develop export quality products that people around the region will buy.

During this time, people transiting to California picked up. Combine the burgeoning Panama traffic and the export of hats to the country, and you create a demand. Alfaro created a company in Panama that sold his hats from Ecuador, together with cacao and pearls.

He created a demand for his hats in Panama and sold to other countries from Panama. His biggest customer was the United States, with the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil becoming his trade route. The hat came to gold diggers, and they became his biggest customers.

The Panama Hat Becoming An Icon

boy with panama hat

By 1850, the United States had a healthy appetite for these quality hats from Ecuador and Panama. The demand was as strong as 200,000 hats per year, filled by Alfaro and his competitors. His competition from Azuay even tried to undercut him with low prices, but their quality was not as good.

Eloy Alfaro, Manuel’s son, came into the family business and made it stronger. The finances were so stable that it financed the Liberal Revolution of 1895. This helped Eloy become Ecuador’s president twice.

At this time, the Panama hat market saturated so much it splintered into two sectors. The first sector was cheap Panama hats coming from rivals sellers from other regions. The other was a market for premium Panama hats, with the Manabi region becoming the source for it.

Once the Liberal Revolution succeeded, the Panama hat became the symbol of renewed nationalism in Ecuador. Even then, we’re still not answering one question.

Why do we call a hat from Ecuador a Panama hat? The transiting people from Panama to California were buying the straw hats from Ecuador. Since they bought these hats from Panama, many called them “Panama” hats. While this period made Panama hats famous, there was a later event that made them ubiquitous.

Roosevelt and The Growing Misconception

There are several sources, but the most accepted was during the entry of the US in Panama. During this time, Panama was trying to secede from Colombia and declare their independence.

The United States supported this secession, and, in 1903, the country declared its independence. During this time, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his full support to Panama. He wanted to open the Panama Canal to allow more accessible transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

In 1906, Roosevelt checked on the construction of the Panama Canal. At the time, he wore a black-banded straw hat in a photo-op while he sat on a steam shovel. This photo of his inspection tour became famous across the US and around the world. This only reinforced the misconception that these hats came from Panama.

What Is An Authentic Panama Hat?

If you’re trying to get into Panama hats, you need to learn how to be a discerning hat wearer. You need to know how to differentiate between a cheap Panama hat and a top-quality one. How do you do it?

Panama hats come from different materials such as wheat, wood, and even palm trees. Even then, the quality of these hats will be subpar, and they won’t last.

Genuine Panama hats use the toquilla straw as the primary material. Toquilla straw comes from the strands of the Toquilla palm (Carludovica palmata). While it’s not a true palm, it exhibits many qualities that you can find in palms.

While people now create Panama hats throughout Central America and even use Toquilla palm. If you want 100% genuine Panama hats, however, the devil’s in the details. Some connoisseurs note that authentic Panama hats only come from Montecristi, their place of birth.

Montecristi hats are the crème de la crème of the Panama hat world. These handmade hats come from Montecristi itself, taking as long as two months to create. They are fully-woven, looking like they’re one piece instead of the usual braided reed product.

If you’re snippy about the authenticity of your Panama hat, what you want is a genuine Montecristi hat using toquilla palm.

Now that you know what’s a genuine Panama hat from a cheap one, the next is the building process. You need to understand how people make Panama hats, so you know how it looks like.

Here’s how.

How Are Panama Hats Made?

The first process of making an authentic Panama hat is harvesting the toquilla palm. The locals who make Panama hats look for toquilla in a forest-like terroir. The aim is to collect the stalks and cut it precisely to help the palm grow more in the future.

The harvested stalks of toquilla have the inner stems, which undergo separation for use. The artisans will then boil these stems to remove the chlorophyll. They will then prepare the stalks for drying and bleaching, separating quality stalks from bad ones.

Only the best toquilla straws come into use for the hats. Lower quality straws come for use in other handicrafts like bags, purses, and baskets. The straws will undergo a strict boiling process, creating softer fibers and separating into individual pieces.

The artisans will smoke these fibers further, bleaching them in sulfur for 24 hours. The artisan will then cut the fibers into even lengths and separated again for better quality. Lower quality fibers will be for use in lower quality Panama hats. Higher quality fibers will divide into smaller, finer strands and will come into use for a dense weave.

The manufacturer will then choose between different weaves that they will use for the hats. The common weaves include:

  • Brisa
  • Cuenca
  • Cuenca Torcido
  • Crochet
  • Fancy

The hat will start the armado, which is the center of the plantilla or crown of the hat. The armador will take care of this process and finish up to the remate or the brim edge.

They will then keep weaving the crown and the brim to the correct size, which takes months. The hat will then pass through hat specialists like the rematador and ajustador to seal the weave.

The hat will then undergo a series of different cleaning and shaping processes. These processes include a “lavado” wash, smoke cleaning, a “paliado” hammering, and “planchado” shaping.

The Different Panama Hat Weaves

When it comes to Panama hats, the weave is a crucial part of the look. Every weave will show the grade and quality of the hat. The fineness and tightness of the pattern are essential to the quality of the grading. The right weave pattern can affect the lightness of the hat, together with its durability and flexibility.

Brisa Weave

Brisa weaves are the most straightforward and most classic weaves for Panama hats. The pattern follows a crisscross weave that shows small diamond shapes. They show a finer and thinner mesh than the other weaves available.

The Brisa weave is the first weave used for the genuine Montecristi hats and snaps carter fedora. The grading of the Brisa depends on the consistency of the weaver. Many fans of the Brisa like the weave to be tight and flat.

Cuenca Weave

The Cuenca is the second oldest weave for Panama hats. You can find it in the Portofino – which is a medium brim, tall crown type of hat. You can also find it in what people call Authentic Classics, which have wide brims and a fedora crown blocking.

The Cuenca weave uses the herringbone pattern, which looks like a stack of chevrons. This pattern is thicker and more airy, perfect for hotter climates with high moisture. It tends to be more durable because of the superior flexibility from the loose weave.

This loose weave, however, can lend itself to a Panama hat with lower longevity.

Cuenca Torcido Weave

The Cuenca Torcido or Cuenca Twisted weave is a new style pattern for Panama hats. It improves on the traditional Cuenca, able to handle rougher use. You can fold them and pack them because the fibers receive a twisted treatment. This process gives the hat extra flexibility.

Fancy Weave

The Fancy pattern is what people call Panama hats that don’t use a uniform pattern. The brim can be Brisa or Cuenca, and the crown can have a different weave. These tend to differ from manufacturer to manufacturer because of the unique patterns they use.

Fancy patterns also drive up the price for the Panama hat. The complexity of the weave can make the product up to two times more expensive.

Crochet Weave

The crochet pattern resembles threads used for crocheting, using a very soft straw for the process. These Panama hats tend to be comfortable and soft but at the expense of durability. It also doesn’t give proper shade, which can be a problem.

The Panama Hat Grading System

more kinds of panama hats

Panama hats separate between types and grades. In all its essence, there is no real grading system for Panama hats. Many people will talk about sorting by “words” and or sorting by grades. Even then, there’s no real sorting system for them as there’s no formal association that sets standards.

Panama hats do not have regulatory bodies that handle quality control and grading. Every manufacturer can use the same grade, the same words, and the same lingo, but it means nothing. For example, company A’s Grade 10 hats will differ in quality than company B’s Grade 10 hats.

Grading systems are ridiculous, the usual of which are:

  • Numerical grade systems
  • Worded grade systems
  • Ring count systems

These three grading systems are meaningless. They’re useless to you as a consumer. Here’s why.

Numerical Grading System

As we said, numerical grading systems use numbered grades. Every weave style will have a different style count, depending on the size of every fiber. Bigger fibers mean lower grade counts, which would make sense if not for the manufacturers.

Manufacturers use graded numbers and do weird mathematics that makes no sense. Some will take the number of fibers, then multiply them by some arbitrary value. This is useless to you.

Some manufacturers will have different counts too. Even the same sellers from the same general area in Panama or Ecuador will not have the same grading systems. Some will grade up to 10, grade up to 20 and even grade up to 30. These numbers have no value to you.

Worded Grading System

Another of the grading systems that are common on the internet is the worded grade system. Many sellers of Montecristi Panama hats use this system as it is great marketing. These buzzwords are easy to impress and easy to create some noise in amateur enthusiasts.

These worded grading systems come as Fino and tack in a word or two on the grade. Some have a system of Fino, Super Fino, Ultra Fino, Fino Fino, and the like. These mean nothing to anyone.

Why?

In the entire world, there’s only less than a handful of master weavers of Panama hats. They can make a “Super Fino,” and it will take them months to make one. Any wordsmith can write down “Super Fino” and it won’t mean squat.

To even segregate between these worded grades, you need to read the descriptions. You need to consider every word, which will be a headache. The only way to look for quality is a side by side comparison.

Ring Counting

Ring counting is one of the more interesting but still unreliable grading systems. If you have physical access to a Panama hat, what you do is count the rings from the crown. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t have any value.

Why?

Many buyers buy from the internet. How many sellers will waste their time taking photos that will make the rings countable? Almost zero.

If you have access to the physical thing, there are better ways to understand the quality of your Panama hat.

How Do You Determine Hat Quality?

elegant panama hat of high quality

So, how do you determine the quality of your Panama hat? There are three significant factors to look at with your hats. These are:

  • Fineness of the weave
  • Color of the fibers
  • Quality of the weave

The smartest way to measure the fineness of the weave is to do a fiber count. Much like how thread count works in linens, you look at the weave available per square inch. You want to count the fibers every inch (2.54 cm) vertical and horizontal. This gradation is what we call the Montecristi Cuenta.

For example, you can count the weaves vertical, using a ruler as a reference point. Count how many you have in an inch. Let’s say you get 25 weaves upright, then do it again and measure on your horizontal axis. Let’s assume you get 30 weaves horizontal.

Multiply the number of vertical to the number of horizontal weaves. With our example, multiply 25 by 30, and you get a Montecristi Cuenta of 750.

Beyond the fineness of the weave, you want to look at the quality of the fibers. It’s great to look at the pattern and look at the consistency of the design itself.  You can’t expect every fiber to be picture-perfect, but you want it to be as consistent as possible.

The last measure that you should use when grading Panama hats is color. If the color is clear and even, that’s a positive score on your hat. If the color is anything gray, reddish, or yellowish, that’s a negative on the hat.

Combine these, and you get an excellent way of grading the hats that you find.

How Should Panama Hats Fit?

man wearing a panama hat

When buying your Panama hat, the fit needs to have the proper size. It needs to be snug around your head without too much movement. Your two usual sources will be a hatter or online. The fitting experience between the two needs different treatments.

When you go to a hatter to buy a Panama hat, the hatter will discuss details with you. They will ask you what’s the occasion you have in mind. They will also ask if you’re looking for the bleached style or the natural straw hat color. Natural straw hat colored Panamas are more for casual situations, while bleached hats are super formal.

Consider your face shape too.

A large man with a rounder face should use a hat with a wide brim. Smaller faces should have a smaller brim. Round or squarish jawlines would benefit from a light color or a narrow band.

If you have the money, it’s best to buy higher quality Panama hats. Also, make sure to wear it snug on your head. Don’t lay it loose. Wear it with confidence and purpose in what you do, showing your pride as a Panama hat owner.

At the end of the day, always buy for fit. Measure your head if you have to and pick the right size. It needs to be snug but comfortable so you can do what you need to do.

Caring For Your Panama Hat

woman with a clean black panama hat

When it comes to caring for your Panama hat, you need to do basic care for the hat itself. There’s not much you should do with cleaning, but more with general handling and storage. There are specific ways you need to do when reshaping, and detailing your Panama hats.

Here’s how you do it.

Handling Your Hat

Authentic Panama hats are flexible as they are, with beautiful handmade weaves. When handling your hat, it’s crucial to maintain the original shape as much as you can. This shape is there to look best on you, and keeping it as is can be one of the biggest challenges.

To start, handle your hat on the brim or cup the crown with your palm. Pinching the crown is a no-no as it will move the top out of shape. When you put down your Panama hat, you need to rest it facing up, crown down. This move is to maintain the shape of the brim.

Never roll your Panama hat. If you have to roll the hat itself, put it back to shape as soon as possible. Rolling will encourage cracks on the fibers.

Never get your hat wet. While Panama hats can handle mild moisture, a good soak will destroy the shape. The fibers will bloat and bend your hat out of shape.

Reshaping Your Hat

Reshaping Panama hats can take a bit of work. Some hats can lose their shape from getting wet or getting in an accident. There are, however, different ways to reshape.

The usual technique is a time-honored method that many hatters use. You can hold the hat over boiling water and steam the hat back into shape. You can also set your blow dryer to low and heat the hat as you reshape it.

If you need to reshape the brim, use a clothes iron on its lowest setting, and start shaping.

Cleaning Your Hat

As you can’t wet your Panama hat, the best you can do is some spot cleaning. Wipe it with a soft, lint-free cloth or a microfiber wipe. This helps prevent the fiber from snagging or catching on the clean.

You can also use a baby wipe or a cloth with very mild soap and some water. If you’re not confident about cleaning or detailing your hats, you can also find cleaning services. Many have hatters that provide this specialized work.

Storing Your Hat

When you store your Panama hat, there are a couple of ways to do it. The ideal way is to use a hat-box, usually the one that your hat comes with when you buy it. It’s best not to stack, but if you have to, stack them from smallest to biggest.

Conclusion

more kinds of panama hats

The Panama hat is one of Panama’s most exceptional products that is historically not their own. It’s a beautiful handicraft with a rich history of perseverance and artisan work. While it’s not Panama’s by history, they have adopted this artisan craft into a world-class product.

Panama hats are creations of master weavers, needing months to complete. Buying a Panama hat is a matter of fashion investment, especially if you’re getting the real McCoy. There are many cheap items out there, so you need to be a discerning buyer.

Why not try adding a Panama hat to your list of accouterments? We’re sure you’d see how good it fits around you and how it enhances your style. Use our handy guide and we’re sure you won’t miss a spot.

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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