One of the most valued ecuadorian cultural heritages are the Toquilla straw hats, or known worldwide as the Panama Hats.
These famous garments are made by hand by peasant families from the Ecuadorian coastal region and the south of Ecuador. But the main province of this ancestral technique is Manabi, being Montecristi and Jipijapa the first cities to export these hats.
That’s why they are also called Montecristi Hats or Jipijapa Hats.
Although they are known worldwide as Panama Hats, their true origin is in Ecuador and their history goes back centuries from the ancestral cultures that inhabited our Ecuadorian coasts.
In 2012, Unesco named the traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat as an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
What is toquilla straw?
Toquilla straw is a unique Ecuadorian plant whose scientific name is Carludovica palmata. In Manabi it is also known as jipijapa, but the most common denomination is toquilla or toquilla straw.
This plant grows in humid soils, that’s why it is cultivated in the mountainous areas of Manabi. However, there are also several crops in other provinces of the Coast, in the mountains and in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Morona Santiago).
The growth time of the plant, after its cultivation, is approximately 2 years and it usually reaches up to 5 meters high. It is precisely that period when the toquilla straw is ready to be extracted and used to make the hats.
Manufacturing process of the toquilla straw hat
The process and elaboration of these Ecuadorian hats is completely manual: no machinery is used other than the hands and techniques of the weavers.
It is worth giving importance to these traditional techniques that have been transmitted for generations among the peasant families of the Ecuadorian coast and that are part of the identity and heritage of these communities. Including the use of the hat as an everyday garment.
That is why if you visit the Coast Region of Ecuador, especially in Manabi, you will see the Montubios wearing these hats, as it is for domestic use. The same with the Cholas Cuencanas in the Highland Region.
The manufacturing time process depends on the quality (of the straw) and its texture. The ones that take the longest production time are the fine toquilla straw hats (sombreros finos de paja toquilla), since they require 45 to 60 days and are made in places where the temperature does not exceed 23°C. Otherwise, the straw can crack.
This type of fine hat is the highest quality and therefore requires more care and time to make. Most of these garments are exported worldwide (especially Europe) as fashion items and are priced in thousands of dollars.
In either case, the process begins in the toquilleras with the collection of the plant stems. These stems are “depoisoned” (their fibers separated) and prepared for cleaning and bleaching.
After these processes, they are ready to be woven. The weavers are mostly women, and with dedication they hand-weave the straw fibers. This step is the most laborious and most important: the tighter the fabric, the more quality it will have.
The last part is the shape of the crown and the wings of the hat. And finally it is washed, bleached and baked.
Where are toquilla straw hats made in Ecuador?
- Manabi: Montecristi, El Aromo, Pile, San Lorenzo and Jipijapa.
- Santa Elena: Dos Mangas, Sinchan, Loma Alta and Barcelona communes.
- Ecuadorian Andes: Azuay and Cañar, being Cuenca (Azuay) the main city.
History of the Panama Hat
The production and export of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hats began at the end of the 18th century – the beginning of the 19th century, being Montecristi one of the first cities that began to export them to Europe.
In the following video produced by UNESCO you can learn a little more about the history behind these Ecuadorian hats and their production process.
But why are they called Panama Hats?
There are several stories around the origin of this name. But to date it is not known exactly who named them that way.
Some say that the former president of the United States, Thedore Roosevelt, was the one who named them Panama Hat when the Panama Canal was inaugurated, but there are documents that certify that this denomination already existed years before Roosevelt was born.
What is known exactly is that these garments were introduced and marketed in Panama in the middle of the 18th century by Manuel Alfaro, a Spaniard living in Ecuador who married a lady from Manabi. And from there it became known worldwide since Panama was the point of arrival and departure for these garments.
You can learn more about the various stories around Panama Hats denomination in this curious note made by Diario El Mundo.
Variants of these hats already exist around the world. But if you want an authentic toquilla straw hat and you are visiting Ecuador, go to Montecristi and get one.
An authentic toquilla straw hat, or Panama Hat, comes from Ecuador and is woven from the unique species of plant that is grown in Manabi.