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The Panama Hat (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

The final details are added to the hats in Cuenca’s factories.

“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.

The hat on the left is made with finer fibers and its construction can take up to six months. The one on the right is made with thicker fibers and it can be constructed in a few days.

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.

These machines are used to give the hats their shape.

How the hats arrive to Cuenca’s factories

“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.

Not yet bleached on the left, bleached on the right.

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.

The hat’s mass production and widespread use mimics another current fashion trend. Headdresses and Native American-inspired clothing often speckle crowds at music festivals and the adoption of handicrafts, prints, and traditional clothing by young concert goers has been a controversial topic of debate, even leading to a lawsuit where the Navajo nation sued Urban Outfitters for attaching their name to the print used on underwear, flasks, and other items. In the case of the sombreros de paja toquilla, this point of cultural pride has not only been adapted and mass-produced, but actually stripped of its origin’s name and given another. Ecuador’s sombreros de paja toquilla was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding by UNESCO in 2012.

“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.

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Megan Youngblood

Megan Youngblood is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about art, technology, all things counter-culture, and the occasional auto-biographical...