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Tips for buying Panama Hats

Travel Tips

Buying a Panama Hat

Fine Panama Hats are the Rolls Royce's of the hat world. A masterwork of craftsmanship, all genuine Panama hats are painstakingly hand woven, and even the most modest Panama hat takes several days of tedious weaving to create from fine straw.
 
Panama hats have always held great appeal to wealthy people who appreciate their fine quality and craftsmanship.

The perfect way to keep cool in the tropics, the Panama Hat is woven from Toquilla straw, split as fine as a sewing thread. Every time the straw is split in half, the weaving time increases fourfold, and a “super fine” Panama hat has thousands of straw threads and takes over a month to weave.



Even today, royalty and movie stars enjoy the craftsmanship of a hand-woven Panama hat. Fine Panama hats are very expensive, with prices for the best “super fine” quality commonly exceeding $10,000. Prince Edward VII paid £90.00 for a fine Panama hat, a sum equal to three months wages of an average worker. A genuine Panama hat starts with hand-split Toquilla straw, and the super-fine hats have the straws are sliced as fine as sewing thread.

All original Panama Hats are bleached with sulfur fumes, making them a light ivory color.

  • Standard – The ordinary Panama hats have a rough-hewn look, but they still take many hours to hand-weave.
     
  • Fino – These “fine” woven hats have finer spilt fibers, increasing the weaving time by 4x. These hats take up to 40 hours to weave and retails in the USA for about $400.
     
  • Super fino - (super-fine) woven hats can take over 1,000 hours of labor to create. They have the texture of silk linen and can cost upwards of $5,000 in fine men’s stores.

Determining the quality of a Panama Hat

All real Panama hats are entirely hand woven, and the best way to evaluate a Panama hat is to hold it up to the sunlight, where the fine weave becomes very apparent:


The village of Montecristi Ecuador has been weaving Panama hats for hundreds of years, and this is Montichristi market with Montichristi hill in the background.  It's not always safe, and you should hire a local escort.



The native weavers are on-display so that you can appreciate the intricate work that goes into every Panama hat:


Above photos copyrighted by B. Brent Black

The finest Montecristi Panama hats are then painstakingly woven so closely that the finished hat looks like a sheet of silk cloth. A single “super ma fin” hat can take the artisan months to complete and careful attention is paid to every tiny detail. The straws are woven back into the brim so that there is no stitching anywhere on the hat.

Photos below copyrighted by B. Brent Black

Panama Hats at Montichristi

Real Panama Hats are not made in Panama, and they have been made in Montecristi Ecuador for hundreds of years. The Montecristi hats become known as "Panama hats" when Teddy Roosevelt was photographed wearing one for the Panama canal construction.  They became a status symbol when the rich and famous, film stars (Cary Grant) and dignitaries (Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill) started wearing Panama hats.



There are few master weavers left in Montecristi today, and each hat is a true work of art, representing hundreds of hours of skilled manual labor.

You can also get native Indian woven Panama hat bands, some woven from the tail-hair of horses:


The Manta Indians also make custom hat bands from their local designs.

 

The Panama hat weavers can earn as little as 50 cents per hour with a modest hat taking several days to weave. On the high end, a “super ma fin” hat (super fine) Panama hat can cost over $10,000.00 in upscale men’s stores.  These fine hats take up to 1,000 hours of backbreaking labor to weave. At their source in Ecuador, these amazing handcrafted cost less than $400 dollars at the Montecristi market.

Aficionados of the Panama hat as a threatened art form can visit B. Brent Black's site for additional information as well as a supply of the finest Montecristi hats available today.  As far as shade goes, it's definitely better than wearing a tree on your head.  
 
Portions of this article are excerpted from the book South America Insider Adventures by Rampant TechPress. 

This is the definitive guide for the U.S. American traveler who seeks to safely explore South America.  You can order it directly from the publisher and save over 30% at this link.


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