Let's talk about Panama hats.
We've been delighted with the success of our bespoke panamas.
There's been the holiday maker looking for something cool and stylish for his break. The Swede who wanted something special for Midsummer. The Wimbledon ticket holders looking for the perfect head gear for court 1. Let's not forget the Aid worker who commissioned one to take back to South Sudan.
We've worked with hat newbies and newly weds. We've hand delivered Panama Hats to Croatia and Ukraine.
We've sold Brisa weave and Cuenca weave from the classic bleached to dramatic colours in red and cornflower blue. We've worked with straws which are light as a feather (46g capelin) to the tightly woven superfine 18/20. We've left it natural edge or cut the brim to size.
What we've loved, in bringing our client's hat ambitions to life, is the wearer's constant quest for knowledge. So here are some of the tit bits we've shared about our panama hats:
1. Our bespoke panama hats start their life in Ecuador- generally from the Cuenca region. Handwoven from paja toquilla. (Alternatively called jipijapa palm) The plant is cut, stripped, boiled and dried to make a straw.
2. The hats arrive at The City Milliner like this. Simple hat bodies which we call capelins. Two types of weave- cuenca (herring-bone weave) or brisa (diamond weave)- and then in different weave qualities and colours.
3. 3/5, 8/10, 18/20 is a measure of quality identified by the rows per inch. (if it's 18/20 for example, there could be between 18-20 weaves per row- horizontally and vertically in a square inch). In our case it relates to the perceived quality of the hat (the more rows per inch, the finer the weave, the more expensive hat. Our superfine hat is 18/20 ). I say perceived because it's not just about the fineness of the weave. Quality is also affected by colour, regularity of the weave... Some people consider the vueltas ( the concentric circles) as a mark of quality but as different weavers use different styles - it lacks consistency. Aren't they beautiful?
4. Weaving skills are passed from one generation to the next. Families work together to produce hatbodies to sell to the factories. A 3/5 weave- will take 3-5 days, an 8/10 a matter of weeks, and an 18/20 - 3 weeks or more. Higher than a 20 count - months.. That's before they get trimmed, washed, bleached, dyed (if coloured), stiffened, hammered and reblocked in the Cuenca factories.
5. There are three different types of weavers involved in the hat body making process. The weavers above are tejed0ras- they start the hat, weave the concentric circles, all the way to the brim edge. The weave needs to be locked and the rematedors back weave to 'lock' the weave so it doesn't unravel. Finally the brim edge specialists azocadors get involved to tighten the brim. As brim size is important for my customers- we try to buy woven hats to the right brim width before blocking so we don't need to cut it as it seems a shame to trim off another craftsman's work.
6. 5- 10 years left for the Panama hat? Panama weaving is and has been under threat for some time. Why? Hat weaving is time consuming and underpaid. To be a great weaver one needs years of practice which means starting young. However lured by cities and less back breaking work for better pay, the young are looking at alternative careers. This is why hatters like Brent Black are trying to protect the very finest artisans (like those in Montecristi) by raising awareness for the craft- most recently with his £3 million dollar hat campaign. Across the board, prices for genuine panama hats will have to increase as the supply gets smaller. Ethically it makes sense too. A craft which is recognised by its UNESCO intangible cultural status needs protection and promotion to keep it alive.
7. I'm told by my Ecuadorian supplier that it's the women who wear the panama hats- not the men. I'm looking forward to seeing this for myself when I visit Ecuador at the end of the year.
8. As a hatter- working with Panama is a delight. It is incredible how malleable yet strong it is. And as it has been stiffened as part of the initial hat body making- we can block it once and it retains its shape. Hats have memories whether it's felt or panama.
9. Breath-ability is something more and more our clients are going for. Lets face it. If you are hot head or a sweaty betty you want to feel cool as well as look cool. That means keeping the additional stiffening (stiffener can be a water based or chemical based lacquer painted on the inside by the hatter) to a minimum. Perhaps go for a brisa weave which is not so tightly woven- utilising a wired brim to maintain its shape. A leather sweatband will protect the crown and the hat from you. And you can always dry the band out after you wear it by turning it inside out.
10. Don't fold a Panama hat. I know people always want to fold it and there are even those which are sold as travellers- however just remember the more you fold it, the more you break the weave. Eventually it'll crack. Travelling with a Panama is easy- keep it on your head. Failing that pack it in your case upside down protecting the crown with soft clothes.
If you want more information on the weaving process I recommend watching the Cancion de Toquilla.