History of Straw hats & Felt
hats - Straw hat making
Panama straw hats are hand-woven of toquilla fiber in Ecuador, South
The tough, resilient toquilla fiber comes from the
leaves of palm plants, that grow six to tex feet high along the forest
coasts of Ecuador. The leaves are gathered when they are about four
feet long, and before they spread out into the fan shape, characteristic
of their full maturity. The veins of the leaves are removed, and
they are split or shredded with a sharp, claw-like native instrument.
The shreds are thoroughly washed before they are rolled and flattened
into the form suitable for weaving.
The washing operation is very important to the quality
of the completed hat, as any little particles of dirt allowed to
be rolled up inside the fiber, would produce a bumpy surface and
When the shredded leaves have been processed and
the fibers are in the form desired for weaving, they are carefully
sorted and selected according to length, thickness and color. The
more uniform the fibers for each body, the better the finished
hat can be. Generally speaking the finest grade of fibers produce
the highest quality hat, not only because fineness of fiber results
in fine texture; but also because a hat of fine fibers takes more
time and effort to weave than a hat of course fibers.
The weaving is done by local native families,
living in scattered villages and farms. The coarsest fibers
are given to the youngsters, who are just learning to weave.
To start the weaving of the body, a wooden block
is used as a guide. A bunch of straw is bound in the middle and placed
on the center of this block, with the strands radiating out from
the center. As the weaver begins to plait the strands, he forms a
hard center called the "button". Working from the "button", the weaving
continues in a circular form until the body is finished. As the toquilla
fiber must be kept soft and pliable, the weaver is continually moistening
the straw, while he works.
The woven Panama bodies are picked up from the weaving
families and brought into collection centers in Montricristi, Jipijapa,
Santa Rosa, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. The hats are marked on the inside
with the brand of the collecting agent or firm, so they can be properly
identified, during the finishing and processing operations which
prepare them for shipment to U.S. hat manufacturers.
Specially trained native craftsmen finish the weaving
of the rough bodies, bringing the brims to the correct dimensions
and adding finishing touches to the weaves. A thorough washing removes
dirt and impurities, and the Panama bodies are ironed to flatten
down the fibers. They are laid out in fields to dry, and sometimes
left in the hot sun long enough to naturally bleach.
The straw hats are then coated with a thin solution
of gum which acts as a sizing. They are carefully sorted and graded
according to fineness, evenness of weave, and absence of impurities
in the fibers. Panama hats are finally treated with sulphur to preserve
them against mildew, and forwarded to a finishing plant.
The operations in the finishing plant are similar
to those used in shaping and trimming felt hats with one salient
difference. All straw hats are pre-shaped in a hydraulic mould press,
instead of being shaped on inside wooden blocks. This flanging determines
the set of the brim, and moulds the brim edge evenly, or close
to the desired dimension, reducing
brim variations to a minimum.
Felt hat making - read more