Turning Straw into Gold


The most coveted hats, ones woven by master craftsmen over several months (and signed when the work is finished) are described by the adjective “fino” with a second adjective to further divide them as fino-fino, extra fine and superfine grades. Different sellers use various terms to describe the weave of their hats which can be confusing for visitors on Ecuador tours. If you can roll the hat, and it regains its shape, you know it is a quality Panama hat. Even the Panama hat called a “Cuenca” which is considered lower quality than the top-of-the-line Montecristo finos can take several weeks to weave.

Though Ecuador has lost the marketing battle to call the hat by its rightful name, efforts are underway to retain more of its profit. The Panama hat is a product of many middlemen, traveling from plantation workers to the initial weavers, to the wholesalers, to the finishing weavers to the exporters to the hat makers. No matter what the grade of Panama hat, the weavers who start and perfect the hats before they leave Ecuador for their final touches earn the least amount of money for this intricate skill, handed down through generations. To change the system, some new companies have been established in Ecuador in recent times to make the hats ready for sale to the end buyer before exporting them abroad.

Increasing the clout over the price for the weavers’ work is also a goal. More weaver cooperatives are being organized, enabling craftspeople to sell directly to the exporters instead of to the wholesalers. In our mechanized age, the handcrafting of Panama hats is a skill that younger generations may not wish to continue. To make the profession more lucrative is essential if it is to continue.

Visitors on Ecuador tours will find retail shops in such cities as Cuenca where they may purchase customized or off-the-rack Panama hats, started and completed in Ecuador. Purchasing the hats here helps the industry to be more profitable for the country’s weavers but still at affordable prices you won’t find back home. Among its many options for travel to Ecuador, Southern Explorations takes visitors to Cuenca during its nine-day Journey Ecuador Tour as well as many other destinations where Panama hats are sold.