Panama Hat Weaving: A UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

In this blog post, I want to focus on one crucial element in the hat’s production journey: weaving. The act of weaving the hat is so unique, skilled, respected and culturally significant that in 2012 UNESCO declared it an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). UNESCO’s list of ICH’s includes a diverse array of “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge or skills considered to be part of a place’s cultural heritage”.

Like me, at first you might not know what that is, so let me enlighten you. Cultural heritage is not limited to objects and moments, it also includes living and breathing expressions and traditions handed down from generation to generation, these can include songs, music, dance, drama, cuisines and so on. They are broken down into five main categories: 1) oral traditions and expressions; 2) performing arts; 3) social practices, rituals and festive events; 4) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and 5) traditional craftsmanship.

There are over 400 items from all around the world on the list, examples include the Mediterranean diet, Cuban rumba, Ma’di bowl lyre music, the art of Neapolitan “Pizzaiuolo” (pizza making), yoga in India, Dutch windmill makers, China’s 24 Solar Terms and Jeju Haenyeo, the women diver on Jeju Island in South Korea.

Credit: Institut National du Patrimoine Culturel

The recognition of all ICHs, including the traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat (aka Panama hat), is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity and demonstrating mutual respect for other ways of life. The continued use of the Panama hat as part of everyday clothing and in festive contexts is a distinctive mark of the

Ecuadorian communities perpetrating this tradition and part of their cultural heritage.

The importance of ICH is not the cultural manifestation itself, but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The weavers are mostly peasant families and it’s through observation and imitation that transmission of weaving techniques occurs within the home from an early age. 

Credit: Institut National du Patrimoine Culturel

As far back as 4,0000 BC ceramic figurines wearing curious hats have been found on the Ecuadorian coast. More precisely, in the year 1630 the artisanal production of the hats was begun in earnest. The hats are woven from palm tree fibres (para toquilla) only found on the Ecuadorian coast. Farmers cultivate and harvest the plants before separating, boiling, bleaching and drying the fibres. 

Credit: Institut National du Patrimoine Culturel

Skilled weavers in another village then take this raw material and begin weaving the crown (“rosette”) and the brim of the hat. Depending on the quality and finesse of the weaver and desired hat, the weaving can take from one day to eight months to complete. For example, in the coastal community of Pile, they produce extra fine hats that require an exact number of points in each row of weaving. It’s no wonder UNESCO has declared this amazing weaving skill a sacred one that deserves protection and admiration. 

Now you know why the Panama hat’s cultural significance is so great, it’s time to get one of these classic pieces on your head! I am very proud to stock ten different types – Fedora (classic and premium), Vizor, Stella, Romy, Diana, Bianca, Coco, Colonial, Jacky, Jimmy – of Panama hat in my store, you can browse the full collection here.

In my next blog, you’re going to learn about the complicated process to produce a Panama hat. Stay tuned!

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Inspired by her travels and her passion for old movies, the Swiss founder of MonPanama, Anne-Claude Toral, has been fascinated by Panama hats and handbags since her childhood…. [read more]

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