Learn About the Origin of Panama Hats, their History and How it's Made

The Panama hat is considered one of the most comfortable, versatile and stylish hats made today. It is an artisan hat handcrafted in Ecuador using special techniques passed down through generations. Each one is unique and some can be extremely expensive, depending on their quality and type of weave. The hats are actually judged by the tightness of weave among other factors, all of which combine to influence the hat's total quality and price.

Panama hats come in a range of styles but the most popular are the wide-brim fedora Panama hats, because the wider brim provides more sun protection ideal for the tropical climates the hats are so well suited for. Take a look at some of these stylish Panama hats.

What is a Panama Hat

A Panama hat is a hand woven had made only from a specific type of straw called toquilla straw commonly (also called Jipi, or Jipijapa). The scientific name for this plant is Carludovica Palmata. The hats are styled like a fedora or trilby and both lightweight and breathable due to the straw and weave, which makes them ideal for use in tropical climates.

Since toquilla straw is so fine, supple and soft, the hats can be woven extremely tight and have a very smooth, luxurious and shiny surface which makes they extremely beautiful.

They are made in a range of styles but the most common shape Panama hat is a fedora with wider brim, a pinch-front crown with a center dent. Most have stylish white or black head bands. This is an example of an authentic Panama hat.

Where Did the Panama Hat Originate?

Panama Hats originated in Ecuador where they have been woven by artisan hands for centuries. So, the exact point of origination can not be pinpointed. However, certain varieties can be traced specifically to certain towns. One of the finer varieties of these hats can be traced back to a town called Montecristi. The Montecristi Panama hat is now considered one of the most luxurious and sought after on the market.

Today, these hats are made in various countries around the world. Stetson makes this finer grade Panama hat for instance. The true Panama hats are all woven by hand in Montecristi and around Manabi Province, Cuenca, the northern and southern parts of Ecuador.

History of the Panama Hat

Panama hat history extends back to the middle ages, and it's not only one of the longest, but one of the most interesting of all the hat histories.

As far back as the 1500s, these hats have created a stir. They first caught the eye of visitors to Ecuador. The Spanish explorers Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro ventured to the coastal region of Ecuador and noted the suppleness and shiny texture of the hats worn by the people. Being superstitious, they believed the hats were made of vampire flesh.

You can imagine haw these hats rose in popularity, mainly due to the softness of the toquilla straw, but also for their incredible versatility and performance in tropical locations. Lightweight and waterproof they simply outperformed other hats and soon became a must have for those venturing into the more tropical and exoctic locations around the world. They soon became prized items for dignitaries, politicians, adventurers and prospectors.

In the late 1800's another need for these light, tropical hats arose—the Spanish American war in 1898, pitted American soldiers against both the Spanish army and Spain's control over Cuba (which Cubans were revolting against) and the humid, hot weather. The United States Army ordered over 50,000 Panama hats for its units for this conflict. Later, during the construction of the Panama canal, the Panama hat was worn by excavators and others assigned to the project.

The Panama Hat Today

Over the decades these hats have not been matched by synthetic straws. In fact, the rise of using cheaper straw like toyo to make hats may contribute to the surging popularity of the Panama hat. Few artificial straw hats compare in terms of suppleness, sheen or texture, and they are comfortable and perform exceptionally well in extreme heat or tropical conditions. They also retain their shape and can be rolled or packed and still return to form.

Today, you can find Panama hats that are still hand woven and made with care. They range in price from around $100 to $300 or more. Hats like the Stetson St. Tropez is an example of a finer quality Panama. The Biltmore Quito is an example of a less expensive, lower grade hat but one that still outperforms other straw hats by an exceptional margin.

How Panama Hats Got their Name

The story of how Panama hats got their name is just as interesting. In the 1830's, the first major importer and exporter of Panama hats, Manuel Alfaro, started a business in the town of Montecristi, Ecuador. His mission was to provide these extraordinary hats to people around the world. He started to send the hand-woven hats to America via one of the most logical routes, across Panama.

During the gold rush, these hats became extremely popular among prospectors, and they began to be referred to as those hats from Panama, because that is where they came from. Hence the name Panama hat.

What Panama Hats are Made of

Panama hats are made of toquilla straw which is straw from the Carludovica palmata plant found in Ecuadorian forests. It's colloquially referred to as Jipijapa. It is not a palm, but a grass, although it is very close to palm. The fiber of this plant is extremely soft and shiny which gives the hats a very luxurious look.

The toquilla plant fibers are also very light and soft so it feels good on the head and can be worn for long periods of time. The fibers can be woven very tight as well, making the hats extremely durable and in some cases waterproof.

How Panama Hats are Made

Panama hats are made by hand weaving the "yarns" of the toquilla plant into large sheets or mats using a special weaving technique artisans have perfected over the centuries. This craft is now listed by UNESCO as a piece of intangible cultural heritage.

The first step in the process of making Panama hats begins with cultivation of the toquilla plant. The plants must be planted during the right season, and harvested in cycles of 30-45 days in order for the plants to produce the best straws for weaving. Once harvested, the plants are broken into fibers and boiled using a special process that makes extremely fine, supple straws for weaving Panama hats. After weaving, the "mats" may be bleached to remove colorations producing that shining white appearance.

Finally, the mats are shaped on a hat form to create the final product: a completely unique, artisan woven Panama hat.

What is Toquilla Straw?

Panama hats are made from Toquilla straw which is the type of straw made from the toquilla plant or Carludovica Palmata (aka Jipi or Paja) found in Ecuadorian forests. The Toquilla plant is harvested specifically for making hats. The straw is more than just ideal for making hats. Not only is it very flexible, strong and lightweight, but it has an incredibly silky and shiny surface which gives Panama hats that luxurious finish they are so well known for. This sheeny surface is part of the reason these hats grew in popularity. The Spanish explorers, admittedly ignorant to the culture and plants of Ecuador, thought these hats were made of vampire skin because of the fine finish.

About Carludovica Palmata (a.k.a. Toquilla Plant or Jipijapa, Jipi, Paja, or Paja Toquilla)

  • Aliases: Jipijapa, Jipi, Paja, Paja Toquilla, Toquilla
  • Grows to a height of 5' to 10'
  • Leaf Blade Length: 15 in. to 36 in. (Approx. 1 to 3')
  • Found in / Origin: Central America to Bolivia

Classification of Carludovica Palmata:

Kingdom: Plantae (Plants)
Subkingdom: Tracheobionta (Vascular Plants)
Superdivision: Spermatophyta (Seed Plants)
Division: Magnoliophyta (Flowering Plants)
Class: Liliopsida (Monocotyledons)
Subclass: Arecidae (Palm Family)
Order: Cyclanthales (Plant Order)
Family: Cyclanthaceae (Panama Hat Family)
Genus: Carludovica Ruiz & Pavón (Carludovica)
Species: Carludovica Palmata Ruiz & Pavón (Panama Hat Plant)

Quality and Grades

Since Panama hats are hand-made and no two are alike, people who buy them want to be assured of their quality. Each Panama hat is given a grade based on many factors, the most important being the size and tightness of the weave.

About Panama Hat Grades

Panama hats are graded using a fairly simple system, but one that may vary based on the manufacturer and entity performing the grading.

Each hat is graded on a scale of 0-20 and usually the grade has two numbers separated by a slash. This is the range of the grade of the hat, for insance 15/16 and 3/4. Hat grades are based on how many fibers or woven squares are inside of one inch.

The hats have different types of weaves as well, so a word preceding the grade defines the weave type. A Torcido 3/4 is a hat with a Torcido style weave and a 3/4 grade.

This is an example of a grade 20 Panama hat by Stetson. This is a grade 3 Panama by the same company.

How to Grade Panama Hats

Panama hats were graded using a special tool that was 1-inch square. A grader would count the number of vueltas or carerras (the overlapping woven fibers) in the tool frame and double them. This number corresponded to a grade on a chart. If there were 8 vueltas, then 16 would correspond to a grade on that chart.

If you want to grade a Panama hat or verify the grade given to a hat you want to purchase, count the number of fibers inside of a square inch on the brim, double it and then compare it to a grading chart used by the manufacturer.

You can also use your own eye to determine the tightness of the weave. Hold the hat up to the light and look at the size and consistency of the pinholes of light in the hat. Look closely at the woven pattern for defects and consistent size.

Extra-Fino Montecristo Panama hats are considered to be the finest, due to weave tightness and straw quality.

Panama Hat Grade Chart & Table

This chart shows Panama hat grades and the number of weaves as determined by United States Customs in 1929 to prevent price fluctuations and establish a baseline for quality control.

Hat Grade Weaves Per Inch
1 13
2 14
3 15
4 16
5 17
6 18
7 19
8 20
9 21
10 22
11 23
12 24
13 25
14 26
15 27
16 28