The Panama Hat
Although the name Panama hat 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. Probably, the most well known city of Ecuador is Montecristi and many would say that the best Panama hats supposedly come from there. However, today the small town of Pilé in the western part of Ecuador is the birthplace of the best Panama hats in the world.
Panama Hat Quality
The quality of a Panama hat is determined by a number of factors. On the one hand, the quality of the straw is important. It is derived from the toquilla palm tree. 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 by a great deal. The more weaves and the more evenly they are, the better the quality of the hat. Often times, you see hats categorized in “Montecristi fino” or “Montecristi superfino” etc. This supposedly implies the fineness of the weave of a Panama hat. Unfortunately, those terms are not clearly defined and are used very differently by different vendors and manufacturers. They are used pretty 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, one should simply count the weaves per square inch.
The Finest Panama Hats
The finest hats have 2000 or more weaves per square inch and it takes about 4-6 months to produce such a masterpiece. Considering the amount of time that goes into the production of such a piece of art as well as the fact that there are only two handfuls of people left who can weave in such a finely manner, it seems obvious that such a hat does not come at discount prices. Other than the quality of the straw and the weave, some consider another quality criterion – the amount of the concentric circles – the so called vueltas -which can be found on the crown when the hat is hold against the sun or another source of intense light. Supposedly, the more circles, the higher supposedly the quality. In my opinion, counting the weaves per square inch yields much more reliable results than counting the vueltas. For everday wear, a hat with 350 – 400 weaves per square inch is perfectly sufficient,it only sets you back by less than $100 and is way better than what you usually get from a department store for the same price.
Considering that a hat protects your eyes from the sun but at the same time makes you look more elegant compared to just wearing sunglasses, the question whether or nor to buy a Panama hat seems pretty much like a no brainer. Whether you choose a classic style Fedora with a black grosgrain ribbon and leather sweatband or a tropical style with a red, pleated paisley ribbon and a fabric sweatband is entirely up to you. Especially in terms of styles and shapes of the hat, there is a huge variety as you can for example on Brent Black’s Homepage, but it seems like he pays his best weavers just a small fraction of the purchase price that they have to live in a a house without windows. Hence, before you pursue your hunt for a Panama hat, I can only recommend to watch this short documentary about the Panama hat in three parts which is approximately 30 minutes in length!
Personally, I 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 can recommend the book Panama: a legendary hat – by Martine Buchet and Laziz Hamani which was published in 2004 by Assouline; ISBN: 2843236045