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History of Straw hats & Felt hats - Straw hat making

History of Straw hats and Felt hats - Hat makingGenuine Panama straw hats are hand-woven of toquilla fiber in Ecuador, South America.

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 dirty spots.

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 tight, 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 and smooth 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


History of Straw hats and Felt hats furnishes enlightening detail, beginning with interesting accounts of dress hats in the early years, through the roaring 20's gangster fedoras, includes features on golf and movie celebrities' hats, and highlights some original and contemporary hatmakers.