Primo Panama Hats, a Dying Art in Ecuador Despite their name, Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador. The few remaining master weavers get little recognition -- and even less money -- for headwear that can be sold for thousands of dollars in the United States.

Primo Panama Hats, a Dying Art in Ecuador

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The easiest way for an ordinary guy to become dashing is to wear a Panama hat. In warm weather, it is stylishly cool. A man with one looks as though he knows his way around anywhere. But does he even know that the Panama hat is actually from Ecuador, woven by hand from the fibers of the toquilla palm? The best Panamas are called Montecristi after the coastal town where they're produced. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro discovered, the finest of them are actually woven in a hill village where the few remaining master weavers get little recognition and even less money for hats that can be worth thousands of dollars.


Surrounded by creased green hills, Pile looks like any other poor Ecuadorean village. The roads are unpaved. Wooden houses perch on stilts to prevent flooding when the rains come. But there is a difference. Up in the hills surrounding Pile, the toquilla palm grows. And inside the houses, magic is woven with nimble fingers.

(Soundbite of whistling and weaving)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty-nine-year-old master weaver Manuel Alarcon(ph) painstakingly takes different strands of straw harvested in an elaborate process from the toquilla and seamlessly blends them. He uses his nails that have been sharpened to points. The straw is cream-colored and even. Spiraling out from the crown in concentric circles, the weave is barely perceptible.

Mr. MANUEL ALARCON (Weaver): (Through Translator) They say this is a Panama hat. It's not. It's not even from Montecristi. The really fine ones are from the countryside, and not just anywhere in the countryside, but here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hats made from the toquilla palm were first used by the Incas. In the 17th century, a man named Francisco Delgado is credited with giving it its modern form. It caught on. During the Spanish-American War, the US government ordered from Ecuador 50,000 toquilla hats for its troops. The hat gained its name when it became the headwear of choice for workers on the Panama Canal in the early part of the last century. A superfino Panama hat like the ones Alarcon weaves can take three months to make. Legend has it that the very best weavers do their work only by the light of the moon or when the sky is overcast.

Inside the murky confines of Alarcon's house, a number of creamy, buttery-soft hats are in various stages of creation. But despite the high quality and cost of these hats abroad, Alarcon says he does not live well.

Mr. ALARCON: (Through Translator) We don't make a lot of money from this. They pay us 150, maybe $200. But outside the country, one of my hats can cost thousands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alarcon says there are now only 20 master weavers left in the village.

Mr. ALARCON: (Through Translator): People don't want to learn that much now. The work is badly paid and they think it's better to work in something else, somewhere else. Before, everyone wanted to weave.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When a Pile hat is handed over, its brim bristles with a thick fringe. It still needs to be shaped and cut. For that, every week the weavers go to the town of Montecristi, which has become synonymous with fine hat making, to sell their wares to those who will finish the hats for final sale.

(Soundbite of whistling)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Montecristi is two hours away from Pile. There, 80-year-old master hatmaker Rosendo Delgado slowly begins to cut the fringe off a Pile hat. He will then back-weave the brim, an art in and of itself, before using an old-fashioned, non-electric iron to shape it on large wooden blocks. Before this process, the hat has been pummelled to even its appearance and bleached using burning sulfur by others dedicated to those tasks.

Mr. ROSENDO DELGADO (Hatmaker): (Through Translator): We clean the hat. We have to correct the faults. If there is a black strand, we put in another one. Sometimes the strands break, so we fix it. To make a hat takes a long time. It's not just the work of one person. At least six people work on a single hat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While he works, Delgado reminisces. He remembers when his father's hats would be shipped to Havana and Europe. Now, he says, things are a struggle as these hats are only of interest to connoisseurs.

Mr. DELGADO: (Through Translator) Now there is a lot of competition: Colombian hats, Chinese hats and we even compete with other hats from Ecuador. Here, a cheap, well-made hat will cost you--minimum--$30. People think they are too expensive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While ironing a hat, his wife Victoria says Panama hats aren't even fashionable in Montecristi.

VICTORIA (Delgado's Wife): (Through Translator) No one uses the hats here. They use baseball caps now. I think they don't like the hats we make. If someone puts on a hat, they make fun of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Delgado says he isn't concerned. He says, `Our hats have gone out of style, but fashions change, and it will come back.' Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Ecuador.

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