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The History of the Panama hat

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

One of history’s most famous hats has to be that worn by President Roosevelt on his Panama Canal trip in 1906 — the Panama hat. Photographs were taken and sent round the world. The hat was made in Ecuador and unknown at this point.

Roosevelt became the first serving America president to travel outside the United States. He was keen to move the Panama Canal from an idea to a reality. The significance of the Panama Canal reached out to all part of the world. Trade routes would change. Roosevelt posed in a ninth-five-ton Bucyrus steam shovel in his genuine Panama hat with a wide black head band. This image was wired across the globe showing everyone a larger than life silver screen image of a hat they had never seen before.

Genuine Panama hats are only made with Toquilla Palm, this is the fibrous leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant. These strands are used to weave the fabric of the hat.

The Panama Hat Companies founder, Jenny Froehlich emphasised that the weavers bought this special straw to weave their hoods during the week. This is the most important feature of a Panama hat. Weaving knowledge is passed through communities and down from generation to generation. Each village has a slight different weave. More intricate weaves indicate a higher quality with finer woven fabric.

There are multiple processes with two main components. One is the weaving while the other is shaping the hat. Once the fibres are woven and made into a cone shaped hood, the edge of the brim is finished with intricate back weaving. Next it is trimmed and beaten; each process is carried out by a different highly skilled artisan. The shaping or blocking takes place on a metal or wooden block in a specific form like a fedora, pork pie or other familiar hat.

The best Panama hats are called Montecristis, after the town of Montecristi where the best straw is grown. The last action is to add a wide hatband around the hat. Some claim this is a mark of respect for the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Everyone loves a genuine Panama hat. A trip to Ecuador is one way to buy one, but there are easier ways.

The Panama Hat Company brings a little part of Ecuador to us all.

See how best to style your Panama hat in The Hat Channel Mag July 2020.


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