If you've ever wondered what makes Panama hats so special, Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (the Panama Hat Museum) in Cuenca can fill in some of the details.
This small museum, located inside the Rafael Paredes Panama Hat store, is a brief walk back in time to the days of handmade Panama hats.
You'll learn about paja toquilla, the straw that's harvested at the foot of the Andes mountains, southeast of Manta, Ecuador.
This information includes how the straw is harvested and how it's split, sometimes into a dozen or more incredibly narrow strips. (The narrower the strips, the higher the hat quality.)
You'll also find a couple of side rooms.
One room is filled with moulds, while another is a recreation of a very old hat producer's shop.
It's set up with toquilla straw on the floor, a large mallet, and some old irons that were used to shape the hats way back when.
You'll also have the opportunity to study some of the more modern (but by no means new) equipment that was used to shape these straw hats.
The machine on the right was used to shape hats. The metal that looks like a large donut is a mould the workers used to give certain hats their shape.
When it came time to shape a different style of hat, the worker would replace this mould with another one.
The hat was placed upside down into the mould. The large hinged arm was then lowered onto the hat and heat and pressure were applied to it.
The pressure forced the brim to conform to the shape of the mould, which gave the hat its brim and the unique crown.
The workers could produce fedoras (the most common Panama hat), the Optimo (popular in England), the Teardrop (or C-crown), popular with the indigenous women living in the Cuenca area, along with the Plantation, the Snap brim, the Pork Pie, Boater and Trilby.
Once the hat was shaped, another worker trimmed all the strands of straw, leaving a smooth edge all round the hat.
This brief video is an introduction to how Cuenca Panama hats are made now. It will give you an idea of how past hatmakers used the older equipment.
Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla is located inside the Rafael Paredes Panama Hat shop at Calle Larga 10-41. That's on the edge of the barranco (riverbank), high above the Tomebamba River.
If the siderooms aren't open, ask one of the employees to give you a tour.
It's not a large museum, so you probably won't even need an hour to view everything. While you're there, be sure to check out the hats in the hat shop (that could take an hour!). Then head out to the back terrace for a terrific view of the "New Town" section of Cuenca.
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I just want to thank you both soooo much for creating this web site. I am originally from Cuenca but moved to New York 11 years ago and have not being back since. My husband and I are planning on visiting Cuenca over the Summer and this web site has helped me a lot.
When I came to the US we still had the "sucre," the bus ride cost 1,000 sucres and a pack of trident gum would cost 3,000 sucres. I am very nervous to go back, but thanks to your web site I now know what to expect.
My husband is American and Captivating Cuenca has taught him a lot about what my great city has to offer, things that I had forgotten about myself! :)
Thank You both so much! I cannot wait to visit Cuenca!!