CUENCA, Ecuador — The cool breeze in Cuenca, a city nuzzled in the Ecuadorian Andes at 8,000 feet elevation, blows through its cobblestone streets, rustling the skirts of indigenous women who wear long braids down their back with a baby wrapped in a bright colored shawl slung over their shoulders. The preserved colonial buildings stand proudly as smells of local cuisines blend seamlessly with those brought over by the thousands of expats. Markets sprinkle the city, selling regional specialties like ceviche de balde, locally grown flowers, and, despite the misnomer, the Panama hat.
“When people went to the Panama Canal, they saw the hats that the workers wore as part of the uniform and began to call them Panama hats,” says Flavio Etrain Zhagüi, a tour guide at el Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla, the oldest of the three Panama hat museums that now exist in Cuenca. “But in Ecuador, we always call them sombreros de paja toquilla.”
The hats quickly spread from the workers on the Panama Canal to people in high society throughout the US, Brazil, Europe, and beyond. For a period of time, this boom led the hats to surpass cacao in export value for Ecuador, according to Zhagüi.
Toquilla palm, the plant from which the fibers of a Panama hat are produced and from which it gets its Spanish name, grows in both the Amazon jungle and the coastal region of Ecuador. Only the coastal palms however, specifically those from a city called Montecristí in the Manabí province, produce the fiber used to make Panama hats as the ones in the jungle are not sufficiently flexible or durable. Along the coast, women began to weave sombreros de paja toquillas over 250 years ago.
“These hats couldn’t be made in Panama; they don’t have the correct plant to make the fibers we use to weave them,” Zhagüi explains.
Once the toquilla palm is cut, boiled, and dried, the hats are woven. This step in the hat’s creation takes place in the coastal region. Typically this job is performed by women who learn the skill from their mothers or other women in their family. Depending on how fine the hat’s fibers are — the finer the fibers, the higher the quality — weaving a hat can take anywhere from five days to six months.
Once the weaving is finished, the hats are sent to one of Cuenca’s six factories to be molded, bleached, and finished. Cuenca is not in the coastal region, but it was established as the final stop for this export by President Eloy Alfaro who led Ecuador around the turn of the 20th century. He did this in an effort to balance out the wealth of each of Ecuador’s provinces. El Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla, led by the Parades Roldan family, opened its doors as a factory almost 70 years ago. At the museum, which includes a fully functional factory, hats are softened, molded to their shape and size, and bleached for the sake of both color and texture.
“In Spanish, we say ‘blanquear’ for bleach, but everyone in this factory, in any factory where they make Panama hats, knows the word ‘bleachar.’ We say this because clients would always call and say they wanted their Panama hats bleached and we wouldn’t understand. So eventually we started to use this word,” says Zhagüi.
This word highlights the cross-cultural nature of the sombreros de paja toquilla, birthed in Ecuador then launched into popularity from the Panama Canal, a project which was headed by the US. Unfortunately, these hand-woven hat, which sell for anywhere from $25 to $600, are now being priced out by replicas, often mass produced in China using plastic and sold very cheaply.
“They added it to the list to preserve the traditions, help the people who weave them on the coast, and maybe hopefully get people to stop calling them Panama hats,” says Zhagüi.
When the people of Ecuador initially heard their sombreros de paja toquilla were being called Panama hats, factory workers began to brand them with stamps reading “Made in Ecuador.”
“By that time, people already had it in their mind that these were Panama hats. There wasn’t much that could be done to change that,” say Zhagüi.