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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A History Of The Panama Hat And Understanding A Monticristi According To Camilo Haffar

It was the most unlikely place to find a Panama hat company. No really. So much so that I almost turned back when my navigation told me to turn right off a street I never knew had a right. I was in the middle of North Shore suburbia of Sydney en route to meet Camilo Haffar of Camilo hats, the branded Panama hats of  The Original Panama Hat Company. Once I stopped my car I was still looking around for my final destination. There was no sign on the street front.  Only when I entered what seemed to be an arcade could I see a sign that said ‘Panama Hat’. There is always a point when one considers whether they made the right choice or not but that was very quickly dismissed as I saw a grinning Camilo Haffar who stood up from his desk to greet me.

“Hello, it’s nice to meet you” he said and I entered into a world of Panamas immediately. It was wall to wall hats and paraphernalia, hat ribbons hanging on the wall, hats stacked up and down on racks, hats in boxes, hats on stands, information on the weaving of Panama hats and books on Monticristi hats. There was a lot of WOW going on.

Panama hats are still traditionally woven in Ecuador by hand.

Camilo Haffar is a wholesaler of panama hats although he hasn’t always been in this game. Born and raised in Quito in Ecuador, Camilo arrived in Australia in the early 1970’s after having been living in London. He’s had a few careers. He owned and operated one of the better Victorian restaurants in the Mornington Peninsula of its day and he was also a hairdresser for some time. It was in the early 1990’s that he began designing and importing panama hats from Ecuador.

Camilo’s job is more like that of a provedore rather than a designer. He works with local communities in Ecuador that weave panamas in order to ensure that they weave the right qualities of straw. The basic straw mould before it is shaped is called a hood. At the same time he works on hat blocks. The hat blocks are the shapes of hats that Camilo will run in any given season. They are made from aluminium in Italy and once approved and graded for sizes they are shipped to Ecuador where the local artisans will use them to shape the hats of the season. The hats are made by placing the hoods on top of the blocks and using pressure, heat and steam to form the shape.

Camilo Haffar holds a traditional woven cream panama hat

Because Camilo is a wholesaler he doesn’t keep a lot of stock on hand (although he does hold a lovely collection of Monticristis). Instead he waits for retailers to send him their orders. The orders are then queued for production and delivery is usually taken in July each year. It is therefore the responsibility of the store to ensure that they only take the risk on what will sell. For this reason, many of the Australian stores selling hats will be extraordinarily conservative in the models that they run for fear of taking on stock which can’t be sold (genuine Panama hats are not cheap) . This is perhaps one of the reasons we see so few coloured panama hats in this country. The stock that Camilo does keep in stock is usually in natural or cream colours and in classic shapes only.

A Brief History

Without wanting to take up much of your time I feel you ought to know a little about the Panama and why it is so highly sought after. The origins of the classic panama as worn by agrarian South Americans today dates back a few thousand years to the Incas. The Panama hat historically is derived from Ecuador where a palm called toquilla  (Paja Toquilla ) , which grows up to 2 metres in height,  is farmed by cutting the stems at an angle (which the farmers say makes the end fibres more flexible). The plant only grows at altitudes of 1000 metres or more.  Once harvested, the fibre is boiled, sulphured, bleached and in some cases dyed to a colour before it is ready to be woven.

Climatically, according to Camilo, Ecuador has two seasons, dry and wet. Production of Panama hats takes place only in the dry season between June and September. It is still very much an agrarian family business handed down from generation to generation. Having contacts within these families is what secures some a better chance of getting hold of stock of the panamas. One such family is that of Delgado Gary (pronounced Del-Ga-Tho Ga-Ree). Delgado Gary is a maker of some of the finest panama hats in Ecuador known as Monticristi. These panamas use only the finest strands of straw panama and contain between 1600-2500 weaves were square inch. These hats all derive from the town of Monticristi in Ecuador where a foundation monitors the grading system known as the Monticristi Cuenta. It is said that a decent Monticristi hat should be so fine that when rolled it may fit through a wedding ring {nb: I was once told a much more crude and vulgar version of this test but I will refrain from relaying that here} . To understand the quality, as Camilo explains, you need to understand the grading system of straw. The scale exists between 1-20+ . Grade 1 straw is very coarse and is used in very basic straw hats. A fine quality panama hat is anything from grade 10-20. All Monticristi panama hats are of the 20+ variety.

Now rather elderly, this is a photo of Delgado Gary of Ecuador in the early 1990's, one of the few remaining artisans capable of making a traditional Monticristi panama hat. 

Delgado's present to Camilo Haffar in 1991, a tradtional Monticristi woven Panama hat featuring a woven inscription of HAPPY NEW YEAR 91 in Spanish. 
Camilo holds a traditonal Monticristi Panama hat. The count is usually 1600-2500 weaves per square inch

Apart from grading of the straw, the other most important aspect of Panama hat making is the craftsmanship and weaving techniques. An average panama hat takes a village worker 1-2 days to make. A Monticristi panama hat will take up to 2-3 months to make and in many cases where the hats are custom made, there will be additional weaving techniques and subtle changes in weaves to express a more refined workmanship. More importantly, there is an enormously different handle change between a standard panama, a finely woven panama and a Monticristi and since most hat stores don’t like customers touching a Monticristi for fear of damaging or creasing the weave, the only way to really find out is to own one for yourself.

Why They Call It A Panama

Of course, we have arrived at that point where I need to impart that classic historical knowledge about the name ‘Panama’ hat. The Western name for these hats came from the Western workers building the Panama Canal in the early 1900’s. These workers began wearing local hats to protect themselves from the sun. Some of these hats made their way back to Europe where they were adopted by all elements of society. The Prince of Wales wore a Panama hat to the races whilst Van Gogh and Monet immortalised them in impressionist art. However, the Panama hat was seen in the United States even earlier during the Californian Gold Rush by miners who collected the hats en route to California via the Isthmus of Panama.
If you would like more information on Panama hats, contact Camilo who is a wealth of knowledge of the subject. 

The Panama hat's dedicated book
French ribbons used to finish the panamas

The traditional weaving straw from the palm Paja Toquilla

The Monticristi weaving process

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