We couldn’t help but feel a little blue after leaving the glorious Galápagos Islands. A spot of retail therapy was just the thing to raise our spirits.
Luckily, our next stop was Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city and a place famous for its Panama hats.
Pardon my ignorance, but I had always thought it safe to assume that Panama hats came from Panama.
How wrong I was: the classic white, black banded, wide brimmed headgear favoured by everyone from Roosevelt to Clarke Gable to Keira Knightley originates from Ecuador.
The confusion came when the hats were exported from Ecuador to other countries via Panama, so people incorrectly assumed they were also made in Panama. This misconception was encouraged when workers on the Panama Canal were issued with the practical sun hat.
In Ecuador this style of hat is known as “sombrero de paja toquilla“. Paja toquilla is the palm-like plant which produces the natural fibres used to make the hats. Ecuador’s coastal region has perfect conditions for these plants to grow.
We visited a renowned hat shop, Barranco, in the river bank neighbourhood of Cuenca. This place has been making and exporting hats for generations; they even supply Christy’s in Kensington.
Attached to the workshop is a small museum with antique hat making tools.
Amusingly, Mark has a tiny pin head while I’ve got a massive loaf, two sizes bigger than his. But then I have more brains to carry around, haha…
My brother had especially requested I get him a Panama hat while I was in South America (he’s a stylish fellow who knows one gets Panama hats from Ecuador).
They didn’t have a classic fine weave in his size in stock (like me, his head size is bigger than average). But the lovely Barranco staff insisted it would be no problem to make us the hat we desired that very afternoon. Even better, we were welcome to stick around and see how it was done.
The quality of the weave used is important. Not only does a finer weave have a more attractive finish, it is less likely to become misshapen or develop small holes.
Also, a finer weave is softer and more flexible, meaning you can roll it up in a slim box like below without worrying that it will lose its shape: ideal for travelling.
Obviously a finer weave costs more to account for the extra labour (working this precisely requires extra skill and time) but you get what you pay for.
The cheapest hats are around $10-25 but they feel cheap, stiff and plasticky. When you spend upwards of $80 you get a weave that is guaranteed to last and can be rolled.
A cheaper weave on the left, a finer quality on the right:
Super fine weaves are $150 – 200 (this is what we went for; my brother would expect nothing less and anyway, this is still around half what you would spend in the UK for the same quality).
However the finest, most expensive quality costs around $1,000 for the finished hat. I asked to see one and was flabbergasted – the fibres looked like they had been woven by microscopic elves:
It takes five months for a mere mortal to make a hat of this quality, which explains and justifies the price tag.
The “raw” hats are woven by ladies on Ecuador’s coast, who learn the skill from as young as 8 years old. Barranco and other reputable hat makers buy directly from the weavers to ensure they get a fair price for their labour.
Once in the workshop, the hats need to be trimmed, pressed into shape and finished.
My brother’s hat was pressed five times in total, with water and natural glues used to coax the hat into the best shape during this process.
The brim was measured and traced before the excess was carefully trimmed away and the edges stitched.
Finishing touches – internal and external bands, and the made to measure hats are ready to be worn.
Mark got one made for himself at the same time – he chose a natural finish with a brown band while I picked a bleached white hat and black band for my brother (it’s a fraction too big for me but I’m modelling the best I can!)
What do you think?