Montecristi Panama Hats

Weaving Straw Into Gold

Sheer as silk, costlier per ounce than gold, the colour of fine old ivory, a Montecristi Panama hat is as much a work of art as it is of fashion. These are not the Panamas you find in department stores, not even posh department stores, but are handled only by specialist dealers. They can cost thousands of dollars each. The finest specimens will have over 4000 weaves per square inch, a weave so fine it takes a jeweller’s loupe to count the rows. And every single one is done by hand. No loom is used, only dextrous fingers, sharp eyes and a Zen-like concentration.

It’s a collaborative art. After the weaver has finished his or her part in the process, the raw hat body passes through the hands of a cavalcade of specialist finishing artisans to prepare it for blocking – the final sculpting of the hat into those styles we all know and recognise as a Panama hat: fedora, optimo, plantation.

I’ve been long been interested in these iconic hats and the curious gently old-fashioned world in which they are made, in and around the town of Montecristi, Ecuador.  I travelled there again most recently in 2020, just before the pandemic, and shot a series of images that appeared in the New York Times.