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MONTECRISTI AND THE HATS

GUAYAQUIL

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MONTECRISTI AND THE HATS


Montecristo - Guayaquil, Baños Ecuador This town is internationally known as the main place of manufacture of the Toquilla straw hats, erroneously known as "Panama Hats". Located at the foot of Montecristi hill, the village also has other attractions such as the house of Eloy Alfaro (ex-president of the country), the Largacha sisters' archeological museum and the Monserrat Sanctuary, which traditionally gathers thousands of pilgrims from Ecuador and abroad, especially at weekends. Another place is La Pila, which is where the craftspeople work on sculptures with different themes, and replicas of pre-Colombian pottery. As well as the hats, their crafts centers show other objects made out of mocora palm leaves, iron and toquilla straw.

Perhaps someone who doesn't know the origin of this craft, and who is interested in buying a good straw hat, after consulting and receiving advice about buying an original Panama, will pay 300 dollars for an authentic Panama and will then receive a box labeled: "Made in Ecuador". Is this fraud? Not at all; in fact, the genuine "Panama" is made in this country. But how did the name come to be so wrong? And why does the hat cost hundreds of dollars?

Montecristo - Guayaquil, Baños EcuadorIn the mid-19th century, the gold-diggers headed for California by way of the isthmus of Panama, where they bought hats imported from Ecuador. As time went by, these took on the name of the place where they were bought, instead of that of their origin. Be this as it may, they became very popular. In 1849, for example, Ecuador exported more than two hundred and twenty thousand hats. In 1855, a Frenchman, resident in Panama, presented the hats in the Paris Universal Exhibition. The French, always interested in new fashions, were impressed by the fine material, and even called it "straw fabric". Shortly after, it had become an obligatory accessory.

The popularity of the Panama Hat increased at the start of the 20th century as a result of the appearance in the international press of a photograph of then US president Theodore Roosevelt wearing an excellent fino, which also increased demand for it. The largest companies in the world took on its distribution. In Turkey in 1925, the laws for the modernization of the country prohibited the fez (the traditional hat) and imposed the use of the Panama. In 1944, it held first place in Ecuador's exports.

During the second half of the 20th century, the use of hats fell in general; nonetheless, the distinguished Ecuador Panama kept its aura. In fact, prestigious hat makers from all over the world compete for the production of the highest quality specimens. The elegant Panamas have captivated the famous of today as much as those of yesteryear. Among its users are Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev, Humphrey Bogart and Michael Jordan, to mention just a few.

Of course, there are less expensive imitations made in series; but many of them split, and others do not let air through. The genuine Panama, however, is light, fresh and lasts a lifetime. They are woven by hand, and so each one is unique. Whereas those of lower quality are quite expensive, the best, the "superfinos" of Montecristi, cost over 1,000 dollars. Quality is judged by fineness and regularity of texture, as well as uniformity of color. Just don't forget that the authentic Panama hat is only made in Ecuador.

How is this hat made? The resilient, flexible fiber of a kind of trunkless palm called the toquilla is used. This grows on the coastal lands of Ecuador, where conditions are ideal for its growth and regeneration. The craft hatmakers of Ecuador are recognized as the best weavers in the world for their painstaking work. It can take one weaver a minimum of six months to produce a high quality hat like the superfino of Montecristi. Despite the shortness of the fibers used for making the hat, it is difficult to distinguish where one ends and the next begins. In a true Panama, the texture is so tight that it doesn't even let water through.

The town of Montecristi is famous for its excellent hand-made hats. The experts of the area work in the early hours of the morning or as evening falls so that the Ecuadorian heat does not affect the flexibility of the fibers. They begin by winding on a spiral mold the intricate, interlaced fibers until they achieve the desired diameter. Then they place it on a cylindrical wooden hat block to skillfully build up the sides, also in a spiral. After many weeks work, they reach the brim, which is woven at right angles to the crown. Various finishing techniques, among which are the careful cutting of the surplus fibers, as well as washing and whitening, produce the famous Panama.

Besides the mainline craft of hat production, there are other less well-known but equally beautiful crafts, among which we can find the replication of pre-Columbian figures made in clay by the neighbors of the La Pila area in Montecristi. These are hardly ever seen now in the stalls set up alongside the road leading to Jipijapa and Guayaquil.

Currently, the window displays in the 25 stores located on Nueve de Julio Street, in the higher part of the canton capital, show other articles made by the craftspeople of La Pila. For the past five years, they have been working on utilitarian craft items like pots, baby rattles, plant pots and ornamental items for the dining-room.

All of this, and much more besides, is Montecristi.
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