A Panama Hat is a reference to the straw material it is made from, not the country of Panama. The hat is made from the carludovica palmate plant, which grows in the coastal lowlands of Western South America. Ecuador began producing the Panama hat as early as 1630!
During the California Gold Rush, individuals traveled through the Isthmus of Panama and purchased the Panama hats there. Purchasers told interested buyers that they were bought in Panama, rather than mentioning that they were actually made in Ecuador, and the “Panama Hat” was born. Later, when Theodore Roosevelt visited the Canal, he wore a Panama hat which increased its popularity and reinforeced its name.
When shopping for a Panama Hat you’ll notice a variety of colors and costs, sometimes reaching greater than $150. The single most important factor in determining the value of a Panama Hat is the fineness of the weave. Two other important factors include the evenness of the weave and the color of the straw. Traditionally, all Panama Hats are hand-blocked by a tejedor (weaver), which is a slow and laborious process. Afterwards, clear sizing material is used to coat the hat, which stiffens the straw and helps the hat keep its shape. Panama Hats vary in production time and a coarser woven hat may take a few hours whereas finer hats may take up to 5 months to weave!
There are many styles of Panama Hats, but the most common are: Classic Fedora, Plantation, and Optimo. Coolibar’s take on the Panama hat is inspired by the classic Australian outback hat which features a wider brim for better sun protection.