Straw hat argument

Okay. Fair cop. Panama isn’t a suburb in Luton. It isn’t the posh part of Stockport. Panama, hands up, isn’t even in Britain. It is, rather, a sovereign entity in its own right, somewhere in Central America. It is also the place which gives its name to the Panama, which as everyone knows is a special type of straw hat — including the one which appeared in the hat department here at the workshop this month.

That the material from which the new straw hat is constructed isn’t made in the British Isles, and not even Europe, but another part of the world entirely, isn’t the latest evidence of cheap offshore Panama-plaiting, nor price-wars in the international straw market, but rather how things have always been. Since the 1600s, indeed, people in Ecuador — not Panama: a story for another day — have been practising the stupefyingly difficult-sounding art of cutting and weaving Panama from the leaves of the native toquilla palm.

That’s 400 years of cutting by fingernail the dried and smoked and dried and smoked leaves of the palm, 400 years of weaving by hand the resulting strips, and 400 years of shaping with force of ribcage the plaited Panama into a crown and brim. And, for about half that time, the resultant straw “hoods” have then been shipped halfway around the world to hat-makers over here, where they are transformed from something suitable only for a Flower Pot Men convention into something which befits the bonce of a blue-blood.

There’s the blocking, the cutting, the sewing, the trimming, and the cleaning — all undertaken with ultimate-degree care and finesse lest weeks of work by the folks over in Ecuador be undone by an errant clunk or snip. What you end up with, in this instance, is the gentle sobriety of a teardrop crown, and a short and upturned brim, offset by the fuzzily worn-in suede band. Smart, then, but a notch down from the top. It is here now.