Although the name implies that the origins of this world famous hat are in Panama, the original Panama has always been made in Ecuador. There, it is better known as sombrero de paja toquilla, or simply “straw hat”. Probably the most well known city of Ecuador is Montecristi, and many would say that this is where the best Panama hats come from. Today, however, the small town of Pilé in the western part of Ecuador is the origin of what are considered the best Panama hats in the world.
Panama Hat Quality
The quality of a Panama hat is determined by a number of factors, notably the straw and the weave. The straw is derived from the fibers of the toquilla palm tree, and generally speaking, the finer, the more identical, and the more evenly colored the straw, the better the quality of the hat. On the other hand, the quality of the weaves and the amount of weaves per square inch influence a hat’s quality almost as much as the straw itself. The more weaves and the more even they are, the better the quality of the hat. Oftentimes, hats are categorized as “Montecristi fino” or “Montecristi superfino” and so on. This supposedly implies the fineness of the weave of a Panama hat, but unfortunately, those terms are not clearly defined and are used very differently by different vendors and manufacturers. In fact, they are used very much in the same confusing manner as Super numbers in the fabric trade and thus do not really help to evaluate the quality of a Panama hat. Rather than relying on uncertain terms, it is best to simply count the weaves per square inch.
The Finest Panama Hats
The finest hats have 2000 or more weaves per square inch, taking the hat maker between four and six months to produce such a masterpiece. Considering the amount of time that goes into the production of this piece of art as well as the fact that there are only a few handfuls of people left who can weave in such a fine manner, it seems obvious that this quality of hat will not come at discount prices.
In addition to the quality of the straw and the weave, some consider another quality criterion: the number of concentric circles—the so called vueltas—which can be found on the crown when the hat is hold against the sun or other intense light. Supposedly, the more circles, the higher the quality. In my opinion, counting the weaves per square inch yields far more reliable results than counting the vueltas. For everyday wear, a hat with 350–400 weaves per square inch is perfectly sufficient. The cost is less than $100 and is far better than what you usually get from a department store for the same price.
Considering that a hat not only protects your eyes from the sun but also makes you look more elegant than just wearing sunglasses, the question of whether or not to buy a Panama hat seems pretty much a no-brainer. Whether you choose a classic style Fedora with black grosgrain ribbon and leather sweatband or a tropical style with red pleated paisley ribbon and fabric sweatband is entirely up to you. There is a huge variety of hats, especially in terms of style and shape. You can see many examples on Brent Black’s homepage, but it seems that he pays his best weavers just a small fraction of the purchase price—a fraction so little that they have to live in houses without windows. So, before you begin your search for a Panama hat, I can only recommend watching this short documentary about the Panama hat in three parts which is approximately 30 minutes long!
I have personally had a great experience with Panamabob, who delivers excellent hats for a fair price and spends ample time in Ecuador since his wife is originally from there.
For more detailed information about the Panama hat, I recommend the book Panama: a legendary hat by Martine Buchet and Laziz Hamani which was published in 2004 by Assouline; ISBN: 2843236045