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A simple straw hat, but a long-lasting fashion classic.

A MUST-HAVE CLASSIC IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY

More than a hundred years ago, the Panama Hat was loved by King Napoleon III of France himself and received the public blessing of President Roosevelt of the United States, becoming popular in Europe and The Americas. In the past few decades, various celebrities such as the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, and Madonna, and many Hollywood stars like Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Emma Watson, etc., had sought after it and are loyal supporters of the Panama Hat.  

Photo / The Panama Hat can be addressed as a classic fashion icon for fashion celebrities / Source: Pinterest

Panama Hats come in different grades according to the degree of sophistication. The highest grade may cost more than hundreds of thousand Taiwanese dollars, but it is not certain to be available. So, what kind of craftsmanship and charm makes people from all countries and social classes to fall in love with it?

"PANAMA STRAW HAT" THAT HAS BEEN WOVEN FOR CENTURIES – IT DOES NOT PROCEEDS FROM THE COUNTRY OF PANAMA 

Something interesting is that despite being called Panama Hat, it does not actually come from Panama but from Ecuador, a neighboring country situated a thousand kilometers away. Straw hat is a traditional folk craft in Ecuador which existed even before the Spanish arrived in South America. At the beginning, this kind of handcraft was mainly found in Manabi, a coastal province of Ecuador, but then it extended to cities located by the Andean mountains. 

Photo / Straw Hat weaving is a traditional craft in Ecuadorian villages and towns / Source: Pinterest

In many cities and towns of Manabi every household would weave those kinds of hats, as well as wear them while doing their daily work. Therefore, the Panama Hats were not called by that name at the beginning but “Ecuadorian Hats”, “Jipijapa straw hats” or “Toquera straw hats”, because the weaving straws come from the Jipijapa palm (also known as Toquilla palm).

 

This kind of palm grows in Central and South America, from Mexico to Ecuador and Peru. The western part of Ecuador has many rivers and swamps which make a very humid environment and where the tide helps its growth. The Jipijapa palm is also often called “Panama palm”, and nowadays called “Panama grass”.

 

In fact, the Panama grass can also be seen in the botanical gardens of Taipei and Kenting. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese noticed the popularity of the Panama Hats in the world and introduced said palm to Taiwan. It is said that this also influenced Taiwan’s booming industry at that time by making drafting hats for exportation. 

 

Photo / Panama grass, which grows like a palm, is often mistaken to belong to the family of the palms / Source: kplant.biodiv.tw

Photo / The lush Panama grass growing in Ecuador / Source: NY Times

STRAW HAT WEAVING TOWNS IN ECUADOR

Straw hat weaving originated in Manabi, Ecuador, where there were many towns that produced them. Regardless of men, women, or children, all were engaged in weaving work. The small town of Montecristi was one of them. In the mid of the 19th century, Panama Hats began to be popular all over the world, under the promotion of the local government of Cuenca, a city located by the Andean mountainside, were also invested in Panama Hat weaving. Nowadays, Montecristi and Cuenca are the two major producing areas of this handcraft. 

Figure / The two main production areas of Ecuador’s straw hat weaving / Source: Sou Sou Corner

However, the great popularity of the Panama Hats has attracted the interest of various Central and South American countries that compete for their development. Countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, and others, now own similar works. Nevertheless, the Panama Hat from Ecuador remains as the most exquisite craftsmanship and the most famous. In 2012, Ecuador’s straw hat weaving was named as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage '' by UNESCO, because of its exquisiteness and uniqueness.

 

The way the straw hat became popular all over the world started more than a hundred years ago, back when this item circulated among sailors and workmen. One day one of those hats ended at the hands of a Spanish military officer who, after losing a battle in the Americas, took the straw hat back to his motherland where it became a classic fashion item.

THE WAY OF THE PANAMA HAT AS A FASHION CLASSIC: GOLD RUSH, NAPOLEON, ROOSEVELT 

Photo / 1900’s in the West, the Panama Hat had already become a must-have accessory for the upper class / Source: VintageVirginIslands

During the development of the Great Nautical Era, by the 18th century, the “Ecuadorian Hat” was a very popular accessory among sailors and travelers, but most of them still only circulated in Ecuador. It was not until Manuel Alfaro, a Spanish military officer, who was defeated in battle and had to escape back to his motherland in 1830, that the fate of the Panama Hat changed. 

SPANISH MERCHANTS AND SAN FRANCISCO’S GOLD RUSH

Alfaro left Spain and went to Ecuador to start his new life by the small town of Montecristi. There, he noticed the traditional straw hats woven by local residents and visualized the near future of the hats. Alfaro did not change any design of the hats, but opened a local farmland to grow Panama grass, establishing a system to speed up the production and set up relations with similar manufacturing organizations to ensure that the making of hats was more stable than his competitors. That started the era of professional productions and the trading of the straw hats. 

 

With the development of the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil and the construction of a new railway in 1850, Alfaro exported the straw hat from the town of Montecristi to the Isthmus of Panama, which was the hub of transportation at that time. During the same period, the San Francisco Gold Rush broke out and thousands of gold diggers started taking shortcuts to shorten their journeys and go to Isthmus in Panama. During their crossing, almost every traveler would buy a decent and exquisite straw hat as a souvenir because those kinds of straw hats not only helped travelers withstand the scorching sun of the tropics but also gave them a sense of fashion. 

 

Photo / Panama hat became a must-have hat for travelers during the Gold rush / Source: Wikipedia

FUELED BY THE KING OF FRANCE AND THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

During the World Trade Exhibition held in Paris in 1855, a French man living in Panama gave a Panama Hat to Napoleon III, the king of France at that time; he liked it very much and started wearing the hat when talking in public. Soon, the image of the Panama Hat started rooting in the heart of the European people and gradually captured the hearts of the European upper-class society, becoming a fashion sacred good.

 

Fifty years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the US President, Theodore Roosvelt, visited Panama and was inspecting the progress of the canal project, a photo was taken by a reporter where Roosevelt was seen wearing a white suit and a white straw hat over his head. After the photo appeared in the newspaper people started calling the straw hat the “Panama Hat”, and since then it established an international reputation in Europe and the United States. Nowadays, various celebrities own one of these traditional crafts from Ecuador, even when it adopted a different name.

Photo / American president Roosevelt visited Panama / Source: marcianosmx.com

FINE WOVEN STRAW HATS AS THIN AS COTTON

The hand-woven straw hat has the color and straw pattern of the Panama grass; the variety and irregularity of the hat increases the visual appeal. The grades of the Panama Hat are mainly distinguished by the origin and tightness of the weaving grass, the higher the number of knitting needles per square inch, the more delicate it appears, hence the longer the production time and higher price range. In high quality hats it is not even possible to see the traces of the straw woven, making it resemble a fine fabric in terms of vision and touch.

 

It takes more than a few months or even a year to knit the highest quality Panama Hats, and there are also some which have been knitted for years and which cost can reach more than ten thousand US dollars.

Photo / Panama Hats of different knitting grades, the finest of them can be recognized for the number of knots per inch (From left to right, Fedora classic hats: entry model, advanced model, customized model) / Source: Sou Sou Corner

STRAW HAT WEAVING PROCESS 

1. - The Panama grass’s stalk is cut to take the fiber inside and obtain the raw material for weaving the hat.

2. - Then, the Panama grass fiber is tied into a bundle, before putting it on a large pot to cook it for around 20 minutes; it needs a constant stirring during the process to ensure that the leaves are completely unfolded. It needs to dry and then the best quality fibers are selected to use them in the weaving process.

3. - The weaving of the straw hat will start from the center point of the crown, in a circular manner, and then the body along the way. The time to make a straw hat varies from a few days to more than a few months, depending on the fineness and quality of the weaving. 

4. - After weaving, there’s the shaping, ironing, and trimming of the hat, and finally the settling of the hat strap. With that, the Panama Hat is finished.

Sou Sou project 08 & Ecuadorian Panama Hat

Taiwan’s first fashion craft concept store. Welcome to try it on!

Sou Sou Corner Concept Store : No. 4, Lane 16, Taishun Street, Da’an District, Taipei city

Business hours:
From Wednesday to Sunday 12:00 – 20:00