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Panama hats: Made in Ecuador

Panama hats are making a comeback. But times are still tough for the Ecuadorians who weave them.

As part of Gianfranco Ferre's spring/summer 2004 collection, a model parades a navy off-the-shoulder satin top paired with a Panama hat in Milan. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

CUENCA, Ecuador — Panama hats have made the leap from the heads of Hollywood icons and intrepid jungle explorers to the fashionable masses of Europe and the United States. Models are wearing them on catwalks and teenagers are sporting them at clubs.

But no matter how stylish, each of these hats has simple origins — just not in Panama.

The indigenous people of Ecuador have been weaving hats for hundreds of years, since well before the Spanish conquest. The misnomer arose in the early 1900s because so many of the hats were shipped via Panama and were wildly popular with the canal workers there.

Today, making the hats is a major industry in the Andean city of Cuenca, Ecuador. Weavers in poor mountain communities weave the hats by hand, then sell them to middlemen. Eventually, the hats — for which the weavers were paid between $2.50 and $6 — sell for more than $50 in Europe and the United States.

In the streets of Sigsig, a tiny Andean town in the middle of Ecuador, the culture of weaving is everywhere. Women weave hats as they sell chickens in the market, talk on street corners or sit in the park. Their hands know which of hundreds of straws to grasp and twist, so that the hats seem to grow magically and without thought. Every shot of color, every innovative weave, comes from the mind of an artisan, making each a functional work of art.

The most skilled Panama hat weavers live near the coastal town of Montecristi. There it's not uncommon to take months to weave a single hat. But the vast majority of weavers live in the mountains near Cuenca, in towns like Sigsig.

Hat weaving is a huge piece of Sigsig's economy and culture, but it's a piece at risk. Laura Morocho, 49, has been weaving hats since she was 7 years old. "This is our craft, and our parents teach us," she said.

Many of the hats woven there take about a day to make. After subtracting the price of straw, weavers can earn less than $2 a hat, making it nearly impossible to live off of weaving. As young people decide that weaving isn't worth the money it earns, some of the largest exporters worry that their supply line will dry up.

Cuenca is home to Homero Ortega P. & Hijos, Serrano Hat and K. Dorfzaun, the country's largest hat processors and exporters. All have been enjoying the increased sales brought by the hats' current popularity.

When the hats started appearing on the heads of Madonna, Justin Timberlake and a slew of other celebrities, it drove their revival on runaways and beyond, said blogger and fashion writer for New York Magazine Jessica Morgan.

But in Sigsig, not much has changed. The weavers sell their hats for to middlemen, who then sell them to Cuenca exporters for about $4 or $5.