IN A NUTSHELL, WHAT IS THE PANAMA HAT COMPANY?
The Panama Hat Company grew from the vision of my Ecuadorian mother over 35 years ago, when she recognised the quality of the straw that was coming from Cuenca in southern Ecuador. She fell in love with the weavers when she went out to explore possible opportunities to import products from Ecuador to the UK, having moved to Britain 15 years prior. She began to bring straw into the UK as a raw material to make hats, and over the years developed a passion for design and established herself as a hat designer and maker. Then I joined the family business and helped establish a manufacturing facility in the Luton area, which is the oldest hat making district in the UK. Many of the old hat manufacturers from the area have now disappeared thanks to offshore production. So, over the past five years, we’ve been training people with these new skills, because there are very few makers left in Luton.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A PANAMA HAT?
Genuine Panama hats are only woven in Ecuador in the communities of Cuenca and Montecristi. They are called Panama because they were traded through the Panama Canal. So they have little to do with Panama itself and everything to do with Ecuador. There are copies made in other parts of South America using a similar straw, but one of the reasons that Ecuador has been so famous for developing such a nice product is that the equatorial sun dries the straw that’s harvested from the cloud forests of Ecuador. And the straw just has this flexibility to it. It retains moisture and therefore retains its pliability, and this makes it such a beautiful product to work with, especially in terms of pressing it into shape. Most hatmakers will tell you that Panama straw is the cashmere of the straw world.
WHAT ARE THE PARALLELS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL LATIN AMERICAN WEAVING AND BRITISH CRAFTSMANSHIP WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR PRODUCT?
We currently operate out of the Victorian building in Luton that used to be a straw plaiter – a practice that took place in all the villages around Bedfordshire in the 19th century. Ladies would plait straw and then put it in big bales in long strips, and those straw plaits would later be stitched into a boater in a concentric circle and then pressed with big blocks. It’s really serendipitous for us that our building used to be a straw plaiter, which is so closely linked to what we do today. And there is a similar tradition in Ecuador where the ladies that weave hats for us actually come to market with a big bale of hats that they have woven. It’s not straw plaiting, but is very similar to it, where a woman would have used her spare time to create an income for herself with this beautiful craft. And that’s good in terms of an extra source of income for women in poorer communities in the world because they’re paid by the piece, rather than working in a factory for minimum wage.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE KEY PRODUCT THAT HAS BEEN SELECTED FOR THE MAKERS’ MARKET AT THE ROYAL EXHANGE?
There are a couple that we’re going to be exhibiting. One is the Planter Panama, which looks a bit like a boater hat so it has quite a British style. We are one of the few companies in the UK that can still make the Planter Panama here in the country. We have a big following of men who love to buy it, and in recent years it has become more popular for women to wear this boater style as well. So at the market, we’ll have a boater that is beautifully adapted for women with really bright colours, such as bright green and fuchsia trims, as well as the traditional men’s ones, although we consider them to be unisex. A Planter is also one of the more technically challenging hats to press because it’s got a really wide crown. So Ehioze, our hatmaker who will be with us at The Makers’ Market, will describe how he had to learn to really stretch the straw. When you look at how the straw begins and how it ends, it seems impossible.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST INTERESTING COMMISSION TO DATE?
We love working with creative people because they push us to do different things with hats. A customer once came to us with a photo of David Beckham wearing a really battered, pink Panama hat, and they wanted us to recreate it, even down to the aged look. We had to test lots of processes to age the straw and to make the trim look quite battered.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WAYS TO STYLE A PANAMA HAT?
Silk sashes are being used much more now, and we’re developing a collection of silk-trimmed Panamas. The softness of the silk combines beautifully with the straw.
WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR CRAFT INSPIRATIONS?
We work quite closely with Lock & Co Hatters, Philip Treacy and Maison Michel, who use some of our straw. They really do appreciate the quality of the Panama weave, and we take a lot of inspiration from them.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING PEOPLE CAN DO TO SUPPORT INDEPENDENT BRITISH CRAFT?
Buy more from British brands that make their products in the UK, and tell people if you like your purchase. We should celebrate brands that are still manufacturing in the UK, and the best way to do that is through word of mouth.
- Favourite film: A bit predictable – The Shawshank Redemption
- Designer or brand you would most love to collaborate with: Nick Fouquet. He’s a very skilled hatmaker.
- Podcast recommendations: I love to listen to TedX, particularly the ones on sustainability.
- If you could own one piece of art (regardless of price), what would it be? I will go to the extent of saying that a garden is a piece of art. So I’d want to own an absolutely spectacular garden.
- Favourite item of clothing in your wardrobe: A Ghost trouser suit in teal-coloured silk.
- Music album that left a lasting impression: The Beatles’ White Album
- Go-to snack: Falafel
- One Instagram account you recommend following: Nick Fouquet
The Panama Hat Company will be taking part in The Makers’ Market at The Royal Exchange from 10-13 May 2022.