Panama hats don't come from Panama. They come from Ecuador. Only they're not Panama hats. They're a Toquilla Straw Hat, or a Jipyapa; this from the plant's indigenous name. But only the very best get to be called a Monticristi, named for the town of origin and the foundation that protects and grades these hats.
It's probably the greatest 'term theft' and the least understood misnomer. One that is easily explained.
Hat weaving began on the Ecuadorean coast in the sixteenth century. It was, as it still is, a cottage craft industry. Using the fronds of the Carludovica palmata, a palm like plant that is indigenous to Province Manabi. The new shoots are harvested, beaten on the ground to remove the young leaves, boiled and dried, bleached in sulphur, shrunk and rolled. Transported from the lowlands to Cuenca, up in the mountains. Only then can the weaving begin.
It gained its mismatched appellation because, for a considerable amount of time it was exported, like much of the South America's production, across the Panama isthmus. Gaining further credence in 1904, when President Roosevelt visits the canal excavations and is photographed in one of these eponymous hats. Or so the histories relate.
I'm slowly riding along a pueblo's concrete street, I glance to one side. Through an open door I catch a glimpse of a lady on her stool, illuminated against the corridor's gloom, using the cool of the morning and the low directional light to weave a part completed hat. Some will claim that the best hats are woven by moonlight, when fingers have less tendency to perspiration. Which sounds more like a tenet from Demeter orthodoxy. Turning the corner I come on a workshop whose sole advertisement is a trip hazard of hats set out in a grid on the pavement. Walking on, past a few more anonymous doors, I glance up an alley, to a man stacking a toppling column of yet more hats.
Most will be of the lower grades, either 'standard' or 'superior', for the visitor market. The 'fino' and 'super fino', those for the discerning gent in his linen suit, regimental tie and deep pockets, are through the back. The latter has the mystique that no light nor water will pass through it, the very best, those 'Monticristis', with their crochet weave in excess of three thousand pleats to the square inch, which, when rolled up, will pass through a wedding ring. The dollar bill-roll to pay for it might not.