We regularly receive calls and emails asking about better quality Panama hats. Many people know that these hats are painstakingly woven by hand in and around the small town of Montecristi, Ecuador. The locals know the plant (carludovica palmata) as “paja toquilla”. The “fino” quality (and above) can be quite expensive – even into the thousands of dollars – so it is no surprise that potential hat buyers want to know as much as they can before purchasing. Further complicating questions about the material itself [the topic for an article coming soon] is the fact that these hats often come to the North American market in their most basic state – unblocked, without a sweatband, and without a decorative trim. Buying the hat this way has advantages and disadvantages. I have traveled around the world with my basic unblocked Montecristi Fino hat and it has served me very well. But because most hats in N. America come to the retail market in a more finished state, the hat requires some explanation.
1. Portability: Panama hats are famous in that they can be rolled like fine linen and stored in a balsa wood box, often with the Ecuadorian flag decorating the box (we will include one with a purchase). This is true, but the owner must understand that this will create a crease in the crown of the hat. For many (myself included) this is no problem – the crease becomes a style point, not dissimilar from the “optimo” style crown (a style that almost certainly was born from the fact of this crease which runs laterally on the hat’s crown from the front of the head to the back). Half the hat is folded into the other half and it is carefully rolled from there. The big cigar shape is then held in place by double or triple looping the grosgrain trim (that otherwise adorns the hat at the base of the crown helping to snuggly hold the hat on one’s head) and slipping it around the rolled hat. From there, the hat can be stored in the box, packed in a suitcase, or (as I have been known to do) put in the pocket of one’s trousers when walking about and choosing not to wear the hat. When the hat is unrolled, it may take some minutes (or longer) for the material to relax and expand so that it is again “a hat”. Constantly rolling and unrolling your Panama hat will shorten its life span, as the straw will eventually crack. If you are a stickler for getting the absolute most time of service from products that you purchase, we recommend not rolling your hat.
2. Sweatband: Note that this hat does not come with one. If it did, its portability via rolling would be greatly compromised. This is the hat in its most basic form as per its fabled pre-Columbian history. The hat’s inside, where contact is made with one’s forehead, will discolor via sweat markings over time.
3. Trim: We include two options with a purchase. a. The traditional grosgrain ribbon. Place the hat on your head. Run the ribbon around the base of the crown and pull it so that the hat fits snuggly, not too tight, on your head. Tie a knot or make a bow at the point where the fit is most comfortable. Typically this knot or bow is slid to the left side for man and to the right side for woman. NOTE THAT THIS TRIM CINCHING THE HAT ON YOUR HEAD CREATES A NICE LOOKING STYLE. Until now, you may have been wondering, “This is a hat?” – now hopefully you will see it. Read number one above for the function of this trim while packing your hat for travel. b. The elastic trim. During a trip to Ecuador, we discovered some upscale boutiques sold trim that was elasticized so that the hat wearer could simply stretch the trim onto the hat. When we returned to California, we purchased the material and now make these ourselves. We include one, as an option, with a purchase.
4. Blocking: If owning an unblocked hat, without a sweatband and fixed trim, is not your predilection, you can either purchase a finished Panama hat or have your hat blocked and finished yourself. Peruse our web site, http://www.VillageHatShop.com, for many examples of finished Panama hats in various qualities and styles. Or, research someone in your vicinity who blocks and finishes hats. Collaborate with him/her, given the limitations of the hatter’s blocks, trims, and sweatband materials, and have a custom hat finished to your specifications. [Note: People who now do this work are few and far between. Your options locally may be limited.]
5. Care: We included care instructions with a purchase.
Like any article of clothing that is worn, this hat has a life span. – it will not last forever. Many value these hats beyond simple apparel – they are beautiful and as the artisan weavers get old or die, fewer young people are choosing this arduous career. The hat purchaser must decide for himself/herself how to balance these questions and ultimately, how much to use these hats versus admiring them on a pedestal.
Enjoy your hat!