Panama Hats

The crafting of panama hat "bodies" into many beautiful and functional styles is a particular specialty of San Francisco Hat Company. Our commitment to finely crafted, packable, wearable fashion was inspired by our fascination with these beautiful hats.

"Panama" Hats Are Woven In Ecuador

The fine straw hats known as "panamas" actually originate in the mountains and the coastal regions of Ecuador, where high altitudes and equatorial sun have made the creation of superior sun protection a practical necessity.

A woman weaving a hat
Maria Castillo, a paja vendor and weaver.
The panama is a masterpiece of craft and utilitarian design—finely woven and breathable, weighing only a few ounces, comfortably light and soft, rollable for packing. Apparel so pure and classic can easily be taken for granted. It is instructive to turn the hat upside down and to consider that it is kindred to the prized basketry of the other indigenous peoples of North and South America. The panama is a happy union of a long, proud tradition of fine weaving and the availability of a superb local material - a straw at once fine, flexible, and strong, with a memory for shape.

Panama hats are made from the sustainably harvested young leaves of the panama hat palm, Carludovica palmata. Carludovica grows in the coastal rain forests near the city of Guayaquil, and the towns of Montecristi and Jipijapa, whose names on occasion also describe the straw or hats. As well as for hats, people of the region use the straw to thatch the roofs over their heads.

Straw Drying
Stefan photographed this paja drying yard from a kayak on the Rio Blanco near Esmeraldas.
Fan shaped leaves adorn trees of about eight or ten feet. Because Carludovica is not a true palm, young leaves can be sustainably harvested without threatening the life of the tree. The leaves are boiled or "cooked" to remove sap and combed into thin straws. The more adept the cooking and the thinner the straw, the finer the woven hats will be. Weavers in the countryside around Montecristi carefully prepare very fine straw to make the fantastically fine, cream colored hats for which Montecristi is famous. Most of the straw is bundled and transported a few hours away to Azoguez Province, high in the Andes, the center of panama hat production, perhaps the world's largest cottage industry.

Ecuadorian women in Cuenca
Cuenca, the capital of Azoguez, is a luminous and historical city stretching centuries back to the Spanish conquistadors and before that to the Incas. Panama hats have long been part of the indigenous costume of the area. Men wear generic European-American apparel, while women favor long braids, colorful full skirts and shawls or sweaters. Both men and women wear panama hats, usually blocked into a fedora shape and whitened with sulphur.

Selecting straw at a village near Cuenca
Selecting straw at a village near Cuenca.
Hands weaving crown of a hat
Weavers purchase straw at the local markets, carefully selecting for light, even color. Occasionally we see a beautiful hat body with alternating darker and lighter straws and speculate that a frugal talented weaver made a virtue of a less expensive bundle of straw.

The weavers are farmers and their production follows the cycles of their agricultural lifestyle. Men and women sit in the doorways of their cottages, weaving over cylindrical wooden blocks held in their laps or on stands. Several straws are woven into a distinctive regional "button" at the top of the crown, and the loose ends are plaited around and around. As the weaving progresses and the crown and brim take shape, new straws are added, making engire rings.

A hat woven of many fine straws will accumulate several engires as it grows. A Montecristi fino held up to the light will reveal a lovely pattern of concentric circles of tiny stars of light. Sometimes a very fine hat is referred to as a seven or nine or ten ring hat, although whether this is a definitive standard of fineness is disputed. A standard-grade hat is the work of a day or two. A fino might take two or three weeks. A super fino might represent two months' effort by one of a few very special artisans.

Agents bring panamas to a finishing factory
Agents bring panamas to a finishing factory.
Panama hats drying in a courtyard
Hats are sold within cooperatives or to a long established network of agents who bring them to markets and finishing factories in the bigger towns. Here the hats are graded and sent out to other weavers who finish the brim edges to the desired width and replace any discolored straws. Hats are washed and set out to dry on courtyard floors. They are usually bleached, and they may be dyed. Some hats may be blocked and trimmed. Most are baled and sent on to hatters around the world.

A San Francisco Tradition Since The Gold Rush

Panama hats first came to the attention of North Americans and Europeans in the mid nineteenth century, when adventurers crossing the Isthmus of Panama to and from the California gold fields added a rolled "Panama" hat to their packs.

The fine handwoven treasures sparked a sensation among connoisseurs. A collection of exotic panamas crossed the Atlantic to turn heads at the Paris Exposition of 1855. One of the stylish trophies was presented to Emperor Napoleon III.

For years the luxurious, linen-like summer coolers were little known outside of exclusive circles, but that changed at the turn of the century. The building of the Panama Canal introduced thousands of North Americans to the tropics and popularized the panama.

Postcard of panama hats in panama canal
Lightweight and comfortable, it swept fashion into the twentieth century. The stiff, dark derby became all but extinct as the classic panama was copied in soft felts, and its clean, graceful features became the hallmarks of the modern hat.

In the early years of the fashion, the characteristic shape was the Optimo, named for the optimo rolling crease that traverses the crown. Optimo is the Spanish cognate for the English "optimum," and in an era when everyone wore hats, fine woven rollable panamas were clearly the best hats money could buy. Teddy Roosevelt wore an optimo panama. Al Capone owned many and in fact, brought a weaver to Chicago from Ecuador to weave exclusively for him. The Duke of Windsor wore a particularly fine panama - rolled like a handkerchief in his breast pocket.

Postcard of woman in panama hat, San Francisco Pan-Pacific Exposition, 1915
San Francisco's Pan-Pacific Expostion celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal.
Cognoscenti proudly cultivated the softened, nonchalant curl of the well-worn panama, so different from the stiff workaday straw braid hats of the barbershop quartet. On the screen, an optimo panama was a signifier of wealth and worldly sophistication, worn by actors like Sidney Greenstreet and Greta Garbo. The Optimo cigar box depicts a gentleman in an optimo style panama under a logo picked out in a letter form that mimics the rolling crease.

Folding Fedora
Our Folding Fedora as seen in Seventeen Magazine.

Orange Gingham Rustic
Our Gingham Rustic as seen in Rosie Magazine.
By the 1940s, the fedora, with its "bashed" and "pinched" crown and its snapped down brim, supplanted the optimo. This style, with a black ribbon or with a patterned and pleated puggaree band became a fashion classic, as did the plantation and gambler styles. These popular looks became so ubiquitous that many people still think the term "panama hat " specifically refers to a white straw fedora or perhaps to a nice sporty gambler style golf hat. In fact, panamas can be blocked into a great many shapes and sizes from pert little cocktail hats, to cowboy hats, to very wide brim sunhats.

Historically, fine panamas were prized for a light and even coloration. Now, with the proliferation of stark white "authentic paper panamas," a slightly darker or more variegated coloration speaks more eloquently of the weaver's craft. San Francisco Hat Company pioneered an appreciation of a more natural semi-bleached look, avoiding the environmental hazards of chlorine bleach. Modern dyes permit a rainbow of beautiful colors and provide opportunities for the weavers to display their skill in incorporating multicolored patterns into the hats. Some new and very beautiful panamas feature crochet rather than the traditional plaiting.

Sra. Delgado of Montecristi, her young friend wears Stefan's own Folding Fedora.
Señora Delgado of Montecristi, her young friend wears Stefan's own Folding Fedora.
For years there has been talk of the decline of the traditional craft of hat weaving. Certainly, as the world has gotten smaller, many Ecuadorians have chosen to leave their farming communities for work in North America. However, hat weaving remains a vibrant industry, and young weavers as well as old take tremendous pride in their art, recognizing that they are creating one of the fine handwoven textiles of the world.

•   •   •

In 1980, Stefan Schinzinger crewed on a sailboat to Panama, then travelled to Ecuador in search of tagua palm ivory. He spent three months on the coast at the equator, a few miles from Montecristi, the dusty hometown of the fabled Montecristi fino panamas.

Stefan selecting hats in Montecristi
Stefan selecting hats in Montecristi.
An industrial designer, Stefan became fascinated with the light, soft, rollable hats, which provide perfect portable shelter from the equatorial sun. At that time, most panama hats sold in the United States were shellacked, which made them look good on store shelves, but also made them brittle, breakable and uncomfortable to wear. Stefan began importing panama hat bodies to California and designing hats that showcased their special qualities: lightness, cool ventilation, comfort, resiliency, packability. He started San Francisco Hat Company and transferred the same aesthetic to hats made of other straws, felts and fabrics.

Sally Kellman, co-founder and co-designer of San Francisco Hat, toured with and consulted on a United Nations panama hat project in Ecuador. The United Nations recognized in the panama hat industry an instance in which an indigenous craft has achieved worldwide appreciation and market, thereby giving artisans an opportunity to work for themselves and earn money without having to forsake their own communities and cultural traditions, and saw this as a model for the economic sustenance of other indigenous craft industries.