Hunched over the straw that is laid out on a wooden stand, the craftsman starts at the crown. He or she weaves the fine strands, keeping the fibers moist, in an ever-widening circle to craft the body of the hat, leaving the remaining strands in a long fringe that resembles a hula skirt. The hat is now ready to move on. The hats are gathered up by collectors who take them to such towns and cities as Montecristi, Jipijapa and Santa Rosa in Manabi Province, to Guayaquil further south or into the Andes for the next stage of work that will prepare the hats for the finishers.
With straw pieces poking out in different places and a ragged brim that looks like a mane, the hat still bears no resemblance to the finished product. The finishers have special talents. They correct any irregularities, snip off the loose ends and complete the brim, narrower for some styles and wider for others. Like the field goal kicker who has one task he does supremely well, some of the craftsman who back-weave the edge of the brim, perform only that one critical step.
With the weaving complete, the hat is washed and blocked. The body is carefully tapped with a mallet and ironed which helps give the hat the consistency of a machine-made fabric. The partially-finished hats are bleached to eliminate variations in color and fumigated before being washed and allowed to air dry. Some hats are then dyed. Dipping that hat in a color bath of vegetable or synthetic dye produces a variety of luscious shades such as sorbet and caramel, insuring that buyers will desire more than just one.
Many of the almost finished hats are then exported to the hat-makers abroad or finished in Ecuador. Using a wooden form and steam, the hat-maker irons and blocks the hat, performing the final acts of magic that will fashion the hats into different styles and sizes. A band, sewn into the interior of the hat, adds stability. To the exterior of some hats, a decorative band, most often black, made of leather or the ribbed ribbon called grosgrain the final touch.
The finished top-of-the-line Panama hat is a wonder to behold. Smooth, supple with a slight sheen, it is work of art worth the top three or four digit price it fetches. Lucky for visitors on Ecuador tours, Panama hats range widely in price and quality. There is no better time to buy a Panama hat than during travel to Ecuador where the prices and variety will astound you.