: Determining Quality
By Fred Belinsky
[This is a companion piece to the previous HAT FACTS article entitled "Panama Montecristi Fino Letter To Customers" where I discuss the pros and cons of purchasing a fine Panama hat in an unblocked state.]
If you've ever walked into one of those stores with big signs reading "Persian Rugs: 50% to 75% Off" and tried to get a handle on the value of these "fine works of art" and "products resulting from months of labor by great artisans" where "knots per square inch" and "quality of the material" were touted as evidence of great value and where the upshot was that this $5,000 rug could be yours for $1,800 (followed by "make me an offer"), then you can understand the potential discomfort in purchasing a Panama hat. Before getting into some of the particulars, I'll begin with my conclusion - If you don't know Panama hats, know your Panama hat seller. Said another way - Flim-flam is too easy and runs amok with these hats so be very careful.
Now, here are some things to consider when shopping for a Panama hat:
- A "Panama" hat is a reference to the straw material that a hat is made from. It is neither a style nor a quality, but rather a hat - in any style and of any quality - made from the plant carludovica palmata, which grows in the coastal lowlands of western South America (not in Panama). Therefore, wide ranges of hat styles in a never-ending range of qualities are rightly sold as "Panama hats". The rub is that a fair price for a Panama hat can be $5 or $5,000.
- A knowing shopper usually begins by examining the fineness of the weave. These hats are hand woven, primarily in Ecuador, and the straw itself can continually be made thinner, or finer, by dividing the strand of straw in half. Every time the straw width is halved (via fingernail), the amount of work required to weave the hat is multiplied four times. Obviously - on this basis alone - a fair price for this handiwork can be dramatically different from one hat to another.
- No matter the fineness of the straw, the work of the weaver needs examination. Look for tightly woven consistency in the straw - the fewer the gaps, holes, or bumps, the better. Look for evenness in the weave. The rows should be straight and resemble, what you may know from woolen or cotton fabrics, a small herringbone or diamond pattern.
- The color of the hat, per se, does not have a large bearing on the price, however there are some important things to consider. In the North American market, one mostly finds Panama either in natural straw or bleached white. (Colored straws are achievable via dying; these hats do turn up in stores.) Many people like the white hats, but the buyer should know that the bleaching process weakens the hat and it will likely not last a long as the unbleached natural straw. In natural straw hats, the more consistent the color is throughout the hat, the better. But remember that this is a natural material and differences in hue (sometimes slightly more gray or more reddish) are to be expected. Each hat is unique.
- Not all hats advertised as Panama hats are in fact Panama hats. The phrase, "Panama hats", is not regulated. Materials from all over the world, some of which closely resemble carludovica palmata, are sold as "Panama hats". Some of these materials are quite nice and the hats are fairly priced. Others are not. Buyers beware.
Without the experience of comparing one hat to another, much of what is discussed above will have limited service to the novice Panama shopper. When someone comes into one of our Village Hat Shops and wants a quick education with regard to these hats, we simply line up a half-dozen or so hats in various qualities and much of what is discussed above becomes readily apparent. Because, however, each hat is hand woven and unique, quality is therefore always different from one hat to the next. This exercise in relativity is not the last word on value and fair price. Most people need to see many hats and know this fluctuating market well before feeling comfortable with a purchase that may run hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
Therefore - if you don't know Panama hats, know your Panama hat seller.
- The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller. Adventure Press, National Geographic.
- Panama: A Legendary Hat by Martine Buchet. Photographs by Laziz Hamani. Editions Assouline
- El Sombrero De Paja Toquilla: Historia y Economia by Miguel Ernesto Dominguez. Banco Central Del Ecuador.
- Tejiendo la Vida: Las artesanias de la paja toquilla en el Ecuador by Maria Leonor Aguilar de Tamariz. Centro Interamericano de Artesanias y Arrtes Populares, CIDAP.