Monday, March 27, 2006


The Panama Hat Factory

Panama hats do not come from Panama. All Panama hats are made in Ecuador. They are individually hand-woven from a fiber called toquilla. Toquilla fiber hats have been made in Ecuador for centuries. The Incas made hats from toquilla. They became known as "Panama Hats" when the workers building the Panama Canal wore these hats as protection against the sun. Teddy Roosevelt popularized the Panama Hat in the United States when he was photographed wearing one as he inspected the construction of the Panama canal.

Down a narrow alley way, off a busy street in Cuenca, we found one of several hat factories. We were cordially greeted and taken on a tour of the small factory where our guide showed us the steps in producing a fine Panama hat.

He showed us samples of the toquilla fiber and how some hats are very finely woven of thin strips of the fiber and less expensive hats are woven from thicker fibers. A form is used to weave the crown around to ensure that it will be even and the correct size.

After the hat is woven into a generic form it is bleached to the typical white color and then pressed over a form to give it one of several distinctive shapes.

Notice the metal forms that the hats are shaped by.

This is the press that is used for shaping the hat.

Panama hats range in price from about $30 up to hundreds of dollars for a finely woven hat. The best hats can be rolled up and folded and packed in a suitcase with no damage to the fiber.

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