On a visit to the town of Jipijapa
[pronounced delightfully as "hippy-happa"
], you can easily watch one of the old men sitting in the light of an open window, his long fingers flashing like knitting needles as he crossed and re-crossed thin strands of white straw weaving the "wings" of a hat. For centuries, the long, uniform and supple fronds of the palm plant carludovica palmate
, or paja toquilla
in Spanish, have been used for weaving fine quality hats. Climatic conditions in the coastal area around the town of Jipijapa
are among the best of the continent for its cultivation. And the very best so-called "panamas
", known as finos
, are woven in or around the town of Montecristi
, not far from Jipijapa
in Ecuador's coastal Manabi Province
. These hats can take one weaver a staggering three of four months to weave.
When the conquistadors arrived on the coast, they observed Indians wearing strange headdresses shaped like vampire wings. They were impressed by the durable hats, so tightly woven you could carry water in them. The Spanish named them toquillas
, after the word for toca
The hats' fame grew with time, and by the mid-nineteenth century Ecuador was exporting some 220,000. In 1855, they hit the big time: Ecuadorian panamas caused a sensation in Paris when a Montecristi fino
was presented to Emperor Napoleon III, after which he was rarely seen without one. Thereafter the handy, portable panama replaced the straw boater, becoming a sophisticated fashion accessory. Many hats reached Panama, where vendors enjoyed a roaring trade from travellers passing through the canal on their way to the California gold rush. Such was their popularity, they became known as "panamas
", when, strictly speaking, they should be called "Ecuadors".
Judging a hat requires experience. Tightness of weave, thickness and quality of fibber, colour, smell, shape and touch all have to be considered. It's said the best hats are woven by the moonlight, when there is no danger of the sun's heat damaging the straw before the hat has cured. They can be rolled up so tightly that they can pass through a napkin ring, and then spring back into perfect shape. Despite these wondrous properties, the days of these greatest of panama hats are probably numbered: there are only a dozen weavers left around Montecristi
capable of making them, all of whom are over 70 years old.
itself isn't an exciting town, but it's a good place to go if you're looking for the finest straw hat money can buy - and at a much better price than in London, Frankfurt or New York. You can find a fine Al Capone-style panama for US$32 that would cost well over US$80 elsewhere. It came rolled in a neat balsa box for easy packing. A fino
costing about US$64 in Montecristi
would sell for about US$200 in London, while the fino-finos
are even more expensive.
Today, 95 percent of Ecuador's panama hats are woven and finished in the Cuenca
area, in the southern Sierra. Although toquilla
straw still comes from the coast, Cuenca
controls the industry. In Cuenca
, is worth to visit the factory of the Ortega
family, which has been finishing hats for three generations now.