Panama Hats, those ubiquitous straw creations trimmed in black ribbon, are not made in Panama.
They´re made in Ecuador, where the fibers used to weave the hats is harvested from palm trees grown along the coast and where Andean mountain villages for many generations have been weaving the fibers into the fashionable headpieces that were first popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt.
This week, I visited the Homero Ortega hat factory in Cuenca, Ecuador´s third-largest city with a small town feel, perfect weather and friendly people.
The factory buys woven but unfinished hats from the villagers and then goes through a long process of soaking, drying, dying, ironing, pressing and shaping the hats into the desired form. The last piece of work is the addition of a ribbon around the brim. Black ribbons are traditional for both men and women.
The hats are very popular with celebrities and come in many styles and colors. The traditional that most people are familiar with is a fedora style, with white straw and a black ribbon trim. Quality varies depending on the tightness of the weave, among other factors.
Prices at the Homero Ortega factory range from about $25 to nearly $2,000 for the finest quality hats. Those high-end products can sell for as much as $6,000 in Europe and Asia. The factory sells about 120,000 hats each year and ships to five continents.
And about that Panama connection. When the hats first became popular outside of Ecuador, the Ecuadorean hatmakers delivered their products to Panama for shipping around the world. When the cartons of hats arrived to those far flung places, the shipping containers were stamped Panama. And the name stuck.