World Youth Day 2019 Features – Panama Hats

By Mary Brazell, 11 January 2019
Panama hats in Sigsig, Ecuador. Image: MM/Wikimedia Commons.


As 171 pilgrims from the Diocese of Parramatta join thousands of other pilgrims from across the world for World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, Catholic Outlook will publish a series of features on the small Central American country.

The Panama Hat

A Panama hat is a traditional brimmed straw hat that, despite its name, has never been made in Panama. They originated in Ecuador where they are made to this day. Ecuador’s low tourism and international trade levels during the 1850s prompted hat makers to take their crafts to the busy trade centre of Panama.

Historically, throughout Central and South America, people referred to Panama hats as ‘Jipijapa,’ ‘Torquilla,’ or ‘Montecristi’ hats at the time (the latter two phrases are still in use today).

Panama hats are light-coloured, lightweight and breathable, and often worn as accessories to summer-weight suits, such as those made of linen or silk. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, these hats became popular as tropical and seaside accessories owing to their ease of wear and breathability.

Traditionally, hats were made from the plaited leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, known locally as the toquilla palm or jipijapa palm, although it is a palm-like plant, rather than a true palm.

In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a man who in many ways can be considered the grandfather of the Panama hat, arrived in Montecristi, a town in the Manabi province of Ecuador, to make his name and fortune in Panama hats. He set up a business with his main objective being exportation. Cargo ships were filled with his merchandise and sent to the Gulf of Panama. His business prospered as more and more Gold Rush prospectors arrived and passed through Panama needing a hat for the sun.

One of the first towns to start weaving the hats in the Andes mountain ranges is Principal, part of the Chordeleg Canton in the Azuay province in Ecuador. Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe, subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale, rather than their place of domestic origin.


Panama hats for sale in Montecristi, Ecuador. Image: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD/Wikimedia Commons.


The popularity of the hats increased in the mid-19th century when many miners of the California Gold Rush travelled to California via the Isthmus of Panama and Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Travellers would tell people admiring their hats that they bought them in Panama. So, the hats quickly became known as ‘Panama hats.’

At the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris, Panama hats were featured for the first time on a global scale. However, the Fair’s catalogue didn’t mention Ecuador as its country of origin. It listed this type of hat as a ‘cloth hat’, even though it was not made out of cloth.

In 1906, US President Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was photographed wearing a Panama hat, which further increased the hats’ popularity. Photos of his visit showed a strong, rugged leader dressed crisply in light coloured suits sporing Ecuadorian-made straw Panama hats.

The two main processes in the creation of a Panama hat are weaving and blocking. The quality of a Panama hat is defined by the tightness of the weave. The fine weave of the hat was ideal for protection against the tropical sun.

The price of these hats depends on the time and quality that a weaver put in to the hat. A master weaver could take as long as eight months to weave a single hat. Once the hat is sold to a buyer, it then would pass through more people who would finish the brim, shape it, remove imperfections, bleach the straw and add interior and exterior brands.


For more information on the Diocese of Parramatta’s pilgrimage to World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, please visit

Source: Wikipedia and Ultrafino.


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