Like most baldy men I have a weakness for smart hats and I have recently develop a passion for the Panama. The white summer trilby beloved by the old guard of the Lords Cricket Club is design classic. It’s effortlessly elegant and keeps your crown cool and protected from UV rays in the mad-dog midday sun. Plus it’s a hat with a fine pedigree, worn by many of the great movers and shakers from Napoleon to Churchill and Khrushchev through to Johnny Depp.
So where do these stylish hats come from? Give yourself nul points if you thought it was Panama. As any pub quiz aficionado knows the famous hat is a product of Ecuador.
I approached the company, Last Frontiers who specialise in tailor-made trips to Latin America. After flying into Quito, onto Cuenca and then down to Guayaquil and a week of hat chat with expert makers this is what I discovered.
There are two distinct centres of excellence for panama hats in Ecuador, one on the Pacific coastline and the other high up in the Andes. The towns of Montecristo and the splendidly named Jipjapa, close to the coastal resort of Manta are where the art of making palm hats originated. Here you can see the palm growing in its natural habitat and find a handful of weavers who still produce the legendary superfino Montecristos – The finest grade of panamas that can carry diamond-ring price tags and take up to six months of skilled weaving to produce.
In contrast, the Andean mountain city of Cuenca and it’s surrounding villages concentrate on quantity, with a thriving cottage industry producing a stockpile of sombreros de paja toquilla. The handmade hats may not be quite as refined as the rare montecristos but the scale of the output means that there is more choice for the visitor and guaranteed regular work for the weavers. if you want to see a living craft where weavers proudly wear their own creations then Cuenca is the place to go
The key to the classic hat’s appeal is that is made from one of nature’s miracle materials - the toquilla palm. Thin strips of the palm are woven together in an tight circular pattern to create a fabric that’s as soft and light as linen, robust enough to roll and dense enough to shield you from the tropical sun. The unsung (and often underpaid) heroines of the hat story are the women weavers who practise this skill. They are called toquilleras and many of them live in the rural villages surrounding Cuenca. To meet these skilled artisans and support a successful fair trade initiative you should travel to remote Sigsig, 65km south west of Cuenca. There you will find the headquarters and shop for ATMA, the largest association of toquilleras in the area and the only one that commands the whole process from weaving to export. They produce a great range of hats from their classic panamas - as featured in the Harry Potter movies to jazzy two-tone fedoras. ATMA keep huge stocks of Panamas so you can match any style with any hatband you fancy. Adjustments are made on site or even new designs and unusual sizes can be woven specially.
ATMA Antiguo Hospital Via Chiguinda Gualaquiza y Rio Sigsig facebook.com/atmahats For a full tour and demonstration contact the centre before you visit. Tours are free so be sure to buy something when you are there.
There are several great hat shops worth visiting in Cuenca but most agree that Homero Ortega’s family business is the best. Their factory and shop is opposite the main bus depot in an unpromising part of new Cuenca . Don’t be deterred by their nondescript building because inside is hat heaven with an Aladdin’s cave of superb sombrero de paja toquilla. Visitors are welcome and free to wander through the factory to see the various finishing techniques. There is also small museum explaining the history of the hat and production from palm to weave. You can buy and try your hat at their formal showroom or better still hunt through their storeroom where there are thousands of hat styles shapes and sizes to choose from. Standard Panamas are real bargains costing between $8 to $20 while the stocked superfinos rise steadily in price from $40 to $600 depending upon quality.
Homero Oretga P. and Sons . Avenue Gil Ramirez Davalos 3-86 ,Cuenca homeroortega.com Phone ahead if you are not travelling with a guide.
The quality of a panama is traditionally judged by the number of stitches there are in an inch of the woven hat material. The finer the individual strands of paja toquilla the finer weave and the more hours of weaving involved. So for a quick assessment hold the hat up to the sun and see how much light comes through - the tighter and finer the weave, the less pin pricks of light the better the quality, the higher the price and the greater protection for your head. Fifteen strands per inch is regular weave, eighteen is a good quality and twenty five or more and you have serious piece of craftsmanship in your hands. Always check for an even circular crown and brim with good finishing - no stray strands or heavy knots and avoid brittle toquilla palm.
Last Frontiers lastfrontiers.com offer tailor-made holidays to Latin America that include flights, transport on the ground and accommodation.
For the armchair traveller Hats from the ATMA co-operative in Ecuador can be ordered from Pachacuti, a Fair Trade organisation based in Derbyshire, with a huge amount of hat experience and knowledge. panamas.co.uk
Johnny Morris bespoke hat tour was hosted by the Ecuador Tourist Board ecuadortouristboard.com