There are certain things that just scream summer, from Pimms on the lawn to lazy afternoons watching the cricket, but nothing says summer more than a panama hat. A good quality panama exudes the very essence of summertime style and its timeless design will remain a bastion of summertime sartorial elegance. Simply put, the panama is the choice of summer hat for the well dressed gentleman.
The Panama hat is tremendously versatile equally suited to being dressed up with a summer suit as it is being dressed down with shorts and a polo shirt. However, not all panama hats are the same, some will cost you as little as £40 or £50 while the very best Montecristi can set you back well in excess of £1000. So what’s the deal?
First we shall starts with explaining the misnomer that is the panama hat. It would be reasonable to assume that panama hats come from Panama, but they don’t. They actually come from Ecuador. However, like most South American goods they were historically shipped to the Isthmus of Panama where they were then sold and shipped to their global destinations and in doing so acquired, wrongly, the name that they are still known by today. By rights they should probably be known as Ecuadorian hats and I am fairly certain that the Ecuadorians are not overly chuffed about the name that we have given their hats.
It is worth stating that if it wasn’t woven in Ecuador then it s not a genuine panama hat. There are two main centers of panama hat production in Ecuador and they are the towns of Montecristi and Cuenca. As a general rule the majority of hats are woven in Cuenca but the very best ones are woven in Montecristi. In a genuine Panama you will always see a “Made in Ecuador” or “Woven in Ecuador” stamp on the inside of the hat.
The difference between the best quality and the lesser quality hats is all in the weave. Panamas are woven using Toquilla Palm which is indigenous in Ecuador. Being woven from Toquilla the hats are light coloured, light weight but strong and breathable making them ideal for the summer months. The cheaper hats will have a looser weave, that is the number of strands of palm per inch of hat, the better hats will have more strands per inch, but each strand will be narrower. Having an increased strand count increases the fineness of the hat and reduces the weight but increases the length of time that it takes the hat to make and also the cost. The very best Superfine Montecristi can have up to 2000-2500 strands per inch and can take up to 6 months to be hand woven.
Although the hats are woven in Ecuador that is not the end of the story. The woven, and at this stage unshaped, hats will be bought by hatters who will then shape them (or block them as it is called) and finish them. It is during this process that the hat will be given it’s shape and design. This is often done by the hatter in their own country and so you will often see inside the hat something like “Woven in Ecuador, Made in England” which can lead to confusion to those not in the know.
Blocking is as much a skill as the weaving and the blocking process can either make or ruin an excellently woven hat so it is important to find both an excellently woven hat and an excellently blocked and finished one.
The hat in the photo at the top of this article is my panama for this season having recently replaced one which has given many years of service but is starting to look a little shabby. It has a fine weave and is blocked in the trilby style with a moderately wide brim (my preferred shape). Manufactured by Laird London Hatters who stock them in their London and Cambridge hat shops.
Once you find the perfect panama hat, care should be taken to look after it and as a result it should give you many years of faithful service. Things to remember are:
- Keep your hat clean removing dry dust with a soft clothes brush. More stubborn dirt can be gently wiped with a slightly damp cloth or facewipe.
- If the brim loses shape you can flatten it with a steam iron on the lowest setting (using a damp cloth to ensure that the iron does not make direct contact with the hat).
- If the fibres start to become brittle use some steam to soften them
- Wear your hat in the rain as it will lose its shape
- Fold or scrunch up your panama as it will distort the shape
- Pinch you hat from the crown or damage will occur to the fibres (see below photo showing the damage that can occur)
- Pull the hat from the edge of the brim
- Leave your hat on the back parcel shelf of your car as the prolonged heat will reduce the life of the hat by making the fibres brittle
There really is no excuse for wearing a baseball cap this summer. The smart choice, the elegant choice, the choice of the well dressed gentleman is naturally the panama hat!