The ‘toquilla’ straw hat is a fine example of the history, skill and identity of the Ecuadorean people. It is popularly known the world over, the Panama Hat.
The reason why it was known as the ‘Panama hat’ goes back to the time of the construction of the Panama Canal which caused a great demand for the straw hat, because being light and cool, it became an essential garment for workers to protect themselves from the sun. When American President Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction in 1906 and was photographed using it, the straw hat’s popularity shot up. From this country, the hat was internationalized and people began calling it the ‘Panama Hat’, confusing the port of ‘origin’ with its true place of origin.
It all began when a plant called Carludovica palmata was grown on Ecuador’s south coast. Members of a pre-Columbian culture known as Valdivia used to employ the straw to weave an accessory similar to the wings of a vampire, to protect them from the sun. It was much later, with the arrival of Hispanic customs, that the natives learned the concept of ‘hat’. For many years, Jipijapa and Montecristi were the pioneer regions when it came to making hats for export. However, apprenticeship workshops were later set up in the Azuay canton, to overcome a crisis and boost economic development. As time passed, Cuenca in the highlands of Ecuador became the principal hat centre. And it is there where most are currently assembled and processed.
The palm cutting and treatment process begins in the days around the last lunar cycle. Craftsmen tend to wait for this moment because the straw is softer then, and hence easier to cut. At first, the long stems are chosen and the tender leaves are removed from the shoot. These are cut into fine fibres before being baked and then dried in the wind. When this is complete, the strips take on a light colour and a thin, cylindrical shape. They are left out in the sun during the day and in the breeze overnight, until they gradually acquire their characteristic colour.
Finally, the dry straw is selected on the basis of its colour, size and elasticity. The thinner the fibres, the finer the hat.
The great masters of toquilla straw are peasants (mostly, women) who intersperse their farming activities with hat-making. This explains why numerous factors affect the length of time it takes to make these hats. Some peasants spend between two and four hours a day making them, while others spend around seven. Many take advantage of any free moment, or work exclusively at night. It is nevertheless no strange sight to see women walking or doing other activities while they weave.
According to the craftsmen, there are no tricks involved in the process: it’s all simply a matter of each person’s individual skill. The most important thing is to choose the straw well, get it ready in the correct order, depending on the design requirements, and always keep it moist when weaving, so it does not break.
When the initial weaving stage has ended, the hat is ready for the finishing process, which is carried out in the production and export workshops and consists of several phases: completion, a special braiding which concludes the weave; tightening, when the weave is tightened and excess fibre is cut off; washing, whitening and drying in the sun; tidying, to give the hat the correct shape, and finally a going-over with steam presses or an iron.
The toquilla straw hat is much more than an accessory, as it is an object with extraordinary magic woven into it. Each one is a true work of art, one that not only has involved the combined work and talent of various persons but also reflects the ancient culture and tradition of a whole people. No two hats are exactly the same, and therein lies their outstanding success. What makes each one a unique, quality article is its live organic material, the fineness of its weave, the personal stamp of the craftsman, and the history behind how it has been made.
In 2012, the the toquilla straw hat was added to the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
Catalina S. Montoya