Sunday, February 20, 2011

Panama Hats

You have heard of Panama Hats, those jaunty woven shade hats, often with a black band, of which the "superfinos" are so finely woven that they hold water and can be rolled, run through a ring, stored in a small balsa wood box, and easily reshaped with a few sprinkles of water after storage or sitting on them

"Panama Hat," may be one of the biggest misnomers, certainly the biggest geographical misnomer, around.

Panama hats are actually Ecuadorian Hats. The fibers which make these extraordinary hats grow only in select areas of lowlands Ecuador. Attempts to transplant them to Asia and other parts of the world have resulted in less pliable fibers.

Grown, harvested, soaked, split and then sold, the next step is the people who patiently hand weave the hats, using techniques around for centuries. Then they get sent to another location to bind the edges, another for sorting and distributing, and finally they arrive at the retail market.

Panama gets the credit because products get transported to where the consumers are. One hundred fifty years ago this meant people, predominently men, crossing the Isthmus of Panama to get to the gold fields in the western US and Alaska. Later, the workers building the canal became consumers, and then the people crossing on the canal. The hats, made in Ecuador were transported to Panama where they were sold. The consumers refered to the hats by the place where they were purchased, not where they were produced.

And so, the very fine work of Ecuadorian hat makers is designated a "panama"hat.

They come in four grades from "economy" to "superfino." Even buying in Ecuador a superfino is out of my budget. They can sell for over $100 in Ecuador and $500 elsewhere. Of course the person who has spent a week finely weaving the fibers makes less than all the distributors further up the line.

But I did come home with an economy version which I wore throughout my time in Ecuador,as high altitude at the equator is a recipe for sunburn. You will see some photos of me in the white, large brimmed hat in some of the Ecuadorian photos in these blog postings.

I also brought home a "fino", with a tight crown which does hold water, a lacy weave around the crown, and a black band and edging for a permanent souvenir, and handsome sungear. The Fino is incredibly light and pliable. The dermatologist says I must wear a hat....this one has class.

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