It’s hard to describe the history of Panama hat in one phrase. First and foremost it is strongly underlined the fact that Panama hat is not Panamanian, it is Ecuadorian and it is wrongly attributed to an entire different place. Originally called ‘paja toquilla sombreros’ ( straw hats) and produced in coast towns of Ecuador. The industry was brought in the mid 19th century to the Cuenca region to stipulate the depressed economy and to help fill demand. Nowadays is mostly attributed to the Cuenca region.
A visit to Homero Ortega factory and museum started with a one-on-one free English guided tour, short but very efficient and to the subject. Photography permission was granted in less than a second so I can share some frames I snapped today. The factory is not exactly manufacturing the hats, they are made in the small villages in the area in peoples homes. All the hats are hand weaved and it is estimated that today the number of people involved in the industry is about 10,000, down from quarter million some 50 years ago. A middleman collects the hats and brings them to the Homero Ortega facility. Here the hats are washed, bleached and tinted to the desired colors, or left white. After drying they are pressed with some 100 years old machines then the rim gets sawn on, they are branded and a selection process takes place. The high quality ones are kept in the company shop the lower quality ones are distributed through artisan markets. Just so you know when you pick up one in the mercado.
A ‘regular’ aka classic Panama hat goes for $31.00 in the store as the lowest priced one and the highest high ends shoot up to $2,500.00 and being resold in the USA up to $25,000.00. The shortest workflow for a basic hat is two days and the high end ones would take up to six months to be ready. Beside the hats there are handbags and even wedding dresses made from the same fibre. It takes for three female workers up to six months to finish up the dress.
The Homero Ortega facility is manufacturing 300 hats per day and the largest uptake is the European market. With the cheap Chinese knock-offs made of paper the industry is having hard time to keep up and sales are declining slowly but surely.