Are Panama Hats Really From Panama?

A Panama hat being made in Ecuador.
A Panama hat being made in Ecuador.

A panama hat is a type of straw hat with a traditional brim. Also referred to as an Ecuadorian hat or a torquilla straw hat, the Panama hat is lightly-colored and finely woven from the straw of the South American toquilla palm plant. The hat is lightweight and breathable, and has a distinct central dent in the crown, which is pinched at the front.

History of the Panama Hat

Despite its name, the "Panama hat" originates from Ecuador, where it has been woven and worn for centuries. As a result, the hat is not usually referred to as a "Panama" hat in Ecuador. Instead, it is popularly known as "Sombreros de paja toquilla,” which translates to "hats of toquilla straw." When Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in what is now Ecuador in 1526, inhabitants of the region were already wearing the unique type of headwear. Weaving of the hats was common throughout the coastal and highland areas of Ecuador during the mid-1600s.

Link to Panama

As the local hat making industry in Ecuador grew, Ecuadorian Manuel Alfaro travelled to Panama and established a business selling his hats. Panama's location received more tourists, travelers, and aristocrats than Ecuardor, and hat makers began to ship their hats to Panama, which was a strategic travel hub at that time. The spread of the name "Panama" hat is linked to American gold miners moving from the east coast to California during the Gold Rush. The route by boat that passed through Panama was faster than travelling on land, and was therefore preferred. Many gold miners purchased the lightweight sun hat while in the country, and told others the hats were from Panama. Additionally, the name is also attributed to a photo of US President Theodore Roosevelt wearing a Panama hat. The photo, which was dated November 16, 1906 and showed Roosevelt inspecting the excavation of the Panama Canal, was published globally and contributed to the mistaken use of the term "Panama" hat.

Production of Panama Hats

The production of a Panama hat, which includes weaving and blocking, requires a high level of craftsmanship. The hat's material is prepared in the weaving phase, while the hat's shape is created in the blocking stage. The Brisa weave is the most delicate, as it uses few straws, while the herringbone and Cuenca weaves are more robust, require more straw, and have more intricate designs. The best quality Panama hats are called Montecristis, in reference to the town of Montecristi, where they were initially made.


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