The history of ‘Panama Hats’
Despite their name, ‘Panama Hats’ are not from Panama. In fact, they have never even been made in Panama. This type of hat is an exclusive creation of Ecuador, a country that rarely receives credit for it.
‘Panama Hats’ or ‘Toquilla Hats’ first appeared along the coast of Ecuador in the 1600s. Their use and manufacture then spread to the Andean region of the country and from there to the rest of the world.
Their popularity boomed in the early 1900s with the construction of the Panama Canal. The more than 50,000 workers who built the canal used 'Toquilla Hats’ to protect themselves from the intense work under the sun.
In 1904, American president Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was pictured wearing a ‘Panama Hat’, thus forging its name forever. Thanks to this picture and to the growth of trade stimulated by the canal, the hat industry grew rapidly and steadily for the next 100 years.
However, with the arrival of modern mass production and low labor costs, production fell by 80% in the last 15 years, unable to compete with artificial pieces made in China.
Fortunately, the market’s constant change is ushering in a new era of sustainable and responsible consumption, opening the door to our ‘Toquilla Hats’ once again.
The fiber with which ‘Panama Hats’ are made is called toquilla straw, a vegetable fiber obtained from an endemic palm tree of Ecuador that can only grow at altitudes above 3,200 feet. Besides being farmed in an eco-friendly way, this fiber is also 100% biodegradable.
Once the toquilla straw has been dried, treated and colored, it is handwoven by expert artisans to build the hoods that will later be shaped into hats. It takes at least 8 hours to complete the weaving of each piece.
This difficult and traditional art of hand weaving was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2012, an honorary title awarded to practices, traditions, knowledge, and skills which communities have passed down from generation to generation as part of their cultural heritage.