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Hats Off to Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

Remember the book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? I doubt if you’ve read it lately, unless you have kids or grandkids. It was written in 1938 by the late Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) and it’s a children’s classic. It’s about a peasant named Bartholomew Cubbins who was ordered by the king to remove his hat as the regal entourage passed by. Well poor ole Bart has a problem. Every time he removes his hat, a new one appears on his head. 

This keeps going on and on and really perturbs the king to the point that he threatens to have Cubbins executed. And then, suddenly at about hat #451 the new hats keep getting more and more ornate until at #500 a beautiful jewel-studded crown appears, the king grants him a reprieve and gives Cubbins 500 gold coins for the crown. Geisel, who collected hats, wrote the zany book as a social commentary about abuse of power. 

If somehow you’ve missed it, it’s worth the read.

Well, they might as well call Ecuador “Cubbins-ville” because everyone around here dons hats, specifically, Panama hats!!! What??? So you might be wondering how Ecuador became the world’s leading manufacturer of a hat named after a different country. We sure did. We visited some local hat museums, here in Cuenca (neither one of us had ever been to a museum devoted solely to hats), did a little research and here’s what we found out.

The History of the Panama Hat

About the middle of the 1600s Ecuadorians along the coastal area of the country began developing a weaving process, which led to making Panama hats as a hobby, sort of like knitting or crocheting. They refined the process and got so good at it that in the 17th and 18th centuries the hats gained worldwide popularity. 

In the coastal town of Montecristi the craft was passed down from generation to generation and in 1835 a man named Manuel Alfaro saw an opportunity to make some money. Alfaro began exporting the hats and soon was in the hat business. The timing of the enterprise couldn’t have been more perfect, because in the United States the California Gold Rush was taking place. Would-be gold prospectors, boiling under the hot California sun bought the hats in droves. And the middleman, or in this case, middle country was…you’ve probably guessed…Panama! Panama became the major distributor, and thus, the hat used their name. Folks associated the hats with where they were purchased rather than where they were made. Go figure.

In the early 1900s, during the construction of the Panama Canal, the world was watching the amazing waterway being built through newspaper photos of the workers. It was hot, humid and mosquito-infested.  The Montecristi hat was worn by many of the laborers, and when, while inspecting the canal, Teddy Roosevelt was photographed wearing one of the prizes, the hat became popular and demand for the hat soared. 

So What Makes Them So Special?

Panama hats are made from the toquilla palm, whose fibers are flexible and durable and absolutely perfect for such a perfect hat. Believe me, after seeing one made, creation of the hat is not an easy task.

The town of Sigsig is one of the main sources of Panama hats, here in Ecuador, and guess where it’s located? Yep, real close to us, here in Cuenca. While strolling the streets of Cuenca, we were fortunate enough to find two hat museums/manufacturing facilities, so you better believe we visited them both.

Evidently, there are very few weavers that still have the skill to do the superfine original weaving. I’d never really thought too much about how a hat is put together, but as we tried on and inspected the hats at each place, we really could see a difference.  At the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla hat factory and museum they have a special room for their very best hats and, believe me, they are pricey. No one is allowed to try them on or touch. 

The rarest and most expensive hats can have up to 3000 intricate weaves per square inch! Akin to the intricacy of Bartholomew Cubbins 500th hat, these headpieces can hold water and are so flexible that they can be rolled up and passed through the hole of a wedding ring.  We didn’t actually see this, but were told that it’s true.

The Process

First, the hat specialists have to cultivate and prepare the toquilla fibers. After that, the fibers are intricately separated into very thin strands, which are then submerged in water for 6-7 hours to make them flexible. If they are dried out, the weavers are not able to manipulate them during the weaving process. Because of this, many of the artisans start working at dawn or during the evening so that the sun won’t dry out the strands. 

When you inspect one of the hats up close, the weaving is so exact it’s hard to figure out where it starts. But we were told the process begins at the crown of the hat where eight strands are woven into a tight latticed rosette. As the weaving continues, new straws are added to the “circle” until finally the hat emerges.

It’s fascinating.

I actually got to sit in a “weaving circle” at Economuseo Municipal Casa del Sombrero and watched the hat’s being made. It blew me away. And, to top it off, not one of the weavers, even the older ladies, wore glasses! 

Well, after knowing all of this, John and I both had to have one. 

John has tried on many, but has yet to find the perfect “fit” for him.

Personally, being a Sean Connery fan, I loved him in the white one above. Let him know what you think!

I was luckier. My new head adornment was calling my name as we toured the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla museum and John bought it for me. Now remember, I was born and bred in Texas, so of course I had several cowboy hats that I loved. They got sold in our estate sale, prior to hitting the road as nomadic house sitters. Don’t get me wrong, Texas cowboy hats are way cool, but they don’t even hold a candle to the Ecuadorian Panamas. 

Besides, I think my new chapeau makes me look like a spy, like Mata Hari, or Carmen Sandiego!

Okay, okay, realistically, I look more like Bartholomew Cubbins. 

But, whatever the persona, when I’m wearing my new sombrero, my face is protected from the sun and rain, I fit in with the locals here in Ecuador, and I love it!!!

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