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A Panama hat (toquilla straw hat) is a traditional brimmed straw hat of Ecuadorian origin. Traditionally, hats were made from the plaited leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, known locally as the toquilla palm or jipijapa palm, although it is a palm-like plant rather than a true palm.
Panama hats are light-coloured, lightweight, and breathable, and often worn as accessories to summer-weight suits, such as those made of linen or silk. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, panamas began to be associated with the seaside and tropical locales.
The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists on 6 December 2012. Panama hat is an Intangible Cultural Heritage, a term used to define practices, traditions, knowledge and skills communities pass down from generation to generation as part of their cultural heritage.
Beginning in the early to mid-1600’s hat weaving evolved as a cottage industry all along the Ecuadorian coast. Hat weaving and wearing grew steadily in Ecuador through the 17th and 18th centuries. Even then, the best quality hats were being made in what is now the province of Manabí. Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe, subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale, "Panama hats", rather than their place of domestic origin. The term was being used by at least 1834.
The popularity of the hats was increased in the mid-nineteenth century by the miners of the California Gold Rush, who frequently travelled to California via the Isthmus of Panama. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States visited the construction site of the Panama Canal, and was photographed wearing a Panama hat, which further increased the hats' popularity. The hats were later worn by many early-twentieth century film stars during films.
The two main processes in the creation of a Panama hat are weaving and blocking. Hats are commercially graded with numeric degrees to indicate quality, but these vary by seller. The rarest and most expensive hats can have as many as 1600–2500 weaves per square inch. These hats are known as Montecristis, after the town of Montecristi, where they are produced. The Montecristi Foundation has established a grading system based on a figure called the Montecristi Cuenta, calculated by measuring the horizontal and vertical rows of weave per inch.
A "superfino" Panama hat can, according to popular rumor, hold water, and when rolled for storage, pass through a wedding ring.
Although the Panama hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers capable of making the finest "Montecristi superfinos" remain. Production in Ecuador is dwindling, due to economic problems in Ecuador and competition from Chinese hat producers.
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