The Unusual Origin of The Panama Hat

These practical, stylish and downright legendary hats have a rather mysterious origin. Proudly worn by celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Jessica Alba and Cameron Diaz, and placed atop regal heads such as Edward VII and President Theodor Roosevelt. There is absolutely no doubt this is one of the most famous hats in history. However, despite its name, the Panama Hat actually comes from a totally different country, Ecuador.

History of The Panama Hat

Panama Hats, a traditional brimmed hat made in Cuenca, Ecuador

Panama Hats, a traditional brimmed hat made in Cuenca, Ecuador. Photo credit: shutterstock

Toquilla Palm is a palm-esque plant that is indigenous to the cost of Ecuador. The leaves of this unusual plant, known as toquilla straw, are what all genuine Panama Hats are woven from. These hats can be traced all the way back to the 16th century, where the Incas were seen hand weaving them. Since Ecuador was the only place you could find Paja Toquilla, it became the sole producer of these amazingly popular and stylish hats.

However, Ecuador faced a problem. They were producing these amazingly crafted, beautiful hats, but they had absolutely no market. In the 1800s, when the Panama Hats began to hit the popular market, Ecuador was a relatively unknown country. No tourists, aristocrats or explorers would bother to visit. So, the good artisans of Ecuador decided to ship their hats to Panama, which at the time was an American traveller hub. Thus, the Panama Hat got its name from the country of export, not its country of origin.

Theodor Roosevelt holding a Panama Hat

Theodor Roosevelt holding a Panama Hat. Photo credit: wikipedia.

A secondary contributor to the Panama Hat’s infamous name comes directly from President Theodor Roosevelt himself. On November 16, 1906, Roosevelt was carrying out a three-day inspection of the Panama Canal excavation, and a photo was taken of him wearing a black-banded Panama Hat. As the project was of global importance, this photo was published heavily in the US and throughout the entire world. It is though that this not only contributed to the name of the hat, but that it also started the fashion.

By 1906, the Panama Hat had become the most sought after and exquisite headwear in the entire world. The French presented Napoleon III with one, the royal family of England all wore them throughout the summer months, and the US government dressed their finest soldiers stationed in the Caribbean in them.

Making the Panama Hat

Creating a Panama hat of Toquilla palm.

Creating a Panama hat of Toquilla palm. Photo credit: shutterstock

Genuine Panama Hats are always woven from the fibrous leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, known as the Toquilla Palm. The art of weaving these famous hats is so important that it was added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List in December 2012.

There are two main steps in making a Panama Hat, weaving and then blocking. Weaving creates the ‘material’ the hat is made out of, and blocking is what shapes the hat into a certain style. The body of the hats are hand-woven, edged and bleached by the artisans in Ecuador, shipped to hatters in different countries, and then they are blocked and trimmed into the desired shapes and sizes.

The most delicate style of Panama Hat is the Brisa, this hat uses a very small amount of straw, woven into small diamonds. Slightly more robust are the Cuenca and Llano Herringbone, these hats require a little more straw, and have a slightly more intricate design than that of the Brisa. The strongest and most robust Panama Hat design is actually crocheted, not weaved. The Crochet hat is often decorated with different coloured straw, has extravagant patterns, and is often crocheted into layers to create different textures.

Panama Hats are usually graded by numbers, but this is not a universal grading system and varies dramatically depending on the level of the seller. However, the best quality hats are called Montecristis, named after the town Montecristi where they were first made. These hats are graded depending on how many horizontal and vertical lines of weave they have per square inch. The most expensive Panama Hats have around 3000 weaves per inch. The rarest and finest Panama Hat is known as the ‘Superfino’. This hat is a type of Montecristis, and is said to be able to fit through a wedding ring when rolled up, and then pop right back into shape after.


Visit Ecuador and try one of the Panama Hats, maybe one day you’ll have your own! Chimu Adventures offers tours to South America as well as tailor-made packages.Click here for more information.


Author: Fern Coll