Home of the Panama Hat
In Montecristi, Ecuador live a handful of master weavers, the creators of the finest straw hats in the world “Montecristi Panama Hats”. Hats so fine, they almost defy description. Montecristi panama hats are made from toquilla straw, hand-split into strands not much thicker than thread and woven so finely, at first a panama hat appears to be made from linen. Masterpieces of detail, the edges of these panama hats are woven back into the brim never trimmed and sewn like lesser quality panama hats. Each panama hat is woven by a single artisan, hand-blocked, and takes months to complete. Because there are so few master weavers of panama hats left (two generations ago there were 2000 panama hat weavers; today there are about 20 weavers of panama hats), these works of woven art are becoming endangered to the point of disappearing.
Montecristi is internationally renowned for the high quality of the “Panama Hats” they produce (yes, you read correctly, Panama Hats are and always have been from Ecuador and not from Panama). Lying at the foot of a large hill called Montecristi, the small town of the same name has many attractions such as Eloy Alfaro’s (an ex-Ecuadorian President) house, the Hermanas Largacha Museum, and the Monserrate Sanctuary, where thousands of Ecuadorian and foreign pilgrims traditionally flock, especially on the weekends. Another place of interest is La Pila, whose artisans make a variety of sculptures and replicas of Pre-Colombian ceramics. In addition to hats, these artisan centers display other handmade crafts made of different types of straw and iron.
History of the Montecristi Panama Hat
Modern day Panama hat design was originated by one Francisco Delgado. He lived in the coastal Manabi area of southern Ecuador in the 1700s. Due to the fineness by which the native Americans split the fibers, as with flax, the finest of finest Panama’s look like silk and cost from $10,000 or more on the retail market Why? This quality represents many months of work of one individual! In Spanish, the word delgado means thin, and thin are the fibers which make the finest Panama hats. What is the hat history before Delgado?
Panama hat production in fact is a God send to the weavers, for it’s the only income the weaver’s families have. Occasionally a darker or lighter fiber is admitted into the weaving process to break up the monochromic look and give it personality, it is not in any case a defect. This isn’t “bad” nor of inferior quality, it is a matter of taste as to subtle color patterns exist or not. A hat’s personality emanates from its individual characteristics. The hats are sometimes bleached with sulphur but the natural antique white of the fiber is also desired. Dyeing occurs in lieu of bleaching if colors are desired. Browns are usually for men’s hats, pastels for women’s hats, white and cream are universal. Now, let’s beat your hat!
After weaving, the hat bodies are washed, pummeled a bit to provide regularity, flexibility and suppleness and dried. The sides and crown are actually carefully beaten (another art unto itself) to even them out, but without damaging the hat. The finishing processes after this are the only semi industrialized part of the Panama hat’s production but are accomplished with hand operated tools or devices at most. The ironing and blocking process begins either in Ecuador or at the site of a blocker and seller overseas and a lot of ironing is done with an old fashioned cast metal iron heated on a stove! Initial ironing of the brim through a cloth is needed to remove undulations. At the last, before blocking, the raw edges of fibers are trimmed from the brim and it is back woven to prevent fraying. Hand blocking with steam and iron or with the use of a steam press produces the familiar pattern styles. The countless Fedora styles, Optimos and the Planters/Gamblers are the most popular block styles.
It is erroneously stated on some websites that Panama hats are pretty much exclusively blocked, finished, bleached and dyed in Cuenca no matter where they were woven. Well, these processes of course do occur in Cuenca to a considerable degree because the exporters are chiefly in Cuenca. But finishing and blocking etc. are not exclusive to Cuenca since the province of Manabi is the center of the weaving itself. The coastal town of Montecristi of Panama hat fame is a little hyped as well in that most hats are actually woven outside the city limits in country cottages and in villages generally in Manabi and Guayas provinces. If Panama hats were only produced in Montecristi, every citizen of Montecristi; man, woman, child, dog, cat and chicken would have to be working 24/7 just to keep up with demand. And there is a lot of weaving going on in Cuenca and surrounding areas as well. So things are not as localized as one might gather from some information on the web.