Few injustices can be more galling than having your nation’s most famous export attributed to another country, yet this is what Ecuador has suffered with the “Panama hat”. In the mid-nineteenth century, straw hats from Ecuador were traded in Panama along with vast quantities of other goods and quickly became a favourite with gold prospectors and labourers on the Panama Canal. It was precisely the question “where did you get that hat?” that started the association with the country of purchase rather than the country of origin – an error that was cemented when it was introduced to Europe at the 1855 World Fair in Paris as the “Panama hat”. The indignant words “Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador” are now stamped on hats in an attempt to reclaim sovereignty over the product without upsetting the world-renowned name.

The tradition of hat-making probably goes back a long way in coastal Ecuador; Valdivian ceramic figurines from as long ago as 4000 BC seem to be wearing pointed straw hats. The first conquistadors also wrote about the broad, wing-like hats the locals wore, calling them toquillas, after toca, a Spanish word for a wimple. The Spanish soon began to wear them to stave off the sun’s glare, praising their lightness, coolness and even their ability to carry water, due to the hat’s ultra-fine weaving, but changed the shape into more conventional European styles. In the 1830s, factories employing more modern methods were set up in the highlands around Cuenca and Azuay and slowly began to surpass the traditional weavers on the coast. The hat reached its apogee as a fashion icon in the 1940s, when for a short time it became Ecuador’s top export.

The straw, nicknamed paja toquilla, grows between Panama and Bolivia, but only the conditions in Ecuador’s Manabí and Guayas provinces provide a suitable material for hat-making. The toquilla plant can grow up to 6 metres high after three years, but the best leaves are newer shoots harvested from around the base in monthly cycles. The leaves are split, cleaned, boiled, sundried and bleached with sulphur powder, then cut into straw. Weavers, mainly rural villagers from Manabí and Azuay provinces, get to work early in the morning or late at night, both to avoid the sun, which stiffens the straw prematurely, and so it’s not so hot that their hands get sweaty. The brim is woven and tightened and the excess straw trimmed before the hats are washed, dried and softened with a mallet, while more sulphur powder is beaten into the fibres to bleach it before another final trim. The hats are then pulled over wooden blocks and ironed with more sulphur powder, then blocked into final shape by hand, which is more of an art than it sounds; most hats are now steam pressed by machine into shape in a few seconds. The making of a highest-grade superfino takes several months and as many mastercraftsmen, the last experts of a dying art; perhaps it’s no wonder the very best hats can fetch more than $10,000 in the US.

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