How the Panama hatters of Ecuador change straw into gold

The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey from South America, by Tom Miller. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 271 pp. $15.95. ``The Panama Hat Trail'' tells how Panama hats are made and marketed: how straw is turned into gold. But the book is equally about Ecuador, which is the actual source of the legendary straw hats worn by Albert Schweitzer, Tom Wolfe, and Charlie Chan.

Tom Miller visited Ecuador on and off for three years, tracking down the Panama: its production and distribution, its history and lore. The hats -- produced, in all probability, since ancient times -- were already popular export items by the middle of the 19th century. Since Panama became the major distribution site, the hat took on that country's name, and the misnomer, to the Ecuadorians' regret, stuck fast.

The first mass exposure of Ecuadorian straw hats in the United States, says Miller, was during the Spanish-American War, when the US government ordered 50,000 hats for its soldiers. In 1977, the peak year on record, more than 5 million straw hats were exported worldwide from Cuenca, the center of Ecuador's hat trade. More recently, the worldwide market for the hats has declined; but it is benefiting from the general revival of the hat industry, the result of such popular films as ``Urban Cowboy'' and ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' which feature hat-sporting heroes.

Starting in Quito, Ecuador's capital, and moving through the country, Miller is relentless in his pursuit of the Ecuadorian straw hat. He visits the fields where the toquilla straw is cut; he watches the straw boiled and dried. He talks with weavers, middlemen, exporters. He explores markets, factories, hat shops.

``At times,'' says Miller, half in jest, ``this obsession with Panama hats seemed to border on the ludicrous.'' And at times, the hat theme does seem a bit gimmicky. But -- and this is the book's main virtue -- the hat affords a fascinating view of Ecuadorian society. Analyzed as an economic product, the hat reflects Ecuador's class structure. It is also a craft, an intrinsic part of the culture; hat weaving is a constant in the lives of the poor. The hats are woven mostly by women, for supplementary income. The women weave while busy with other chores -- tending children, cooking meals. By Miller's calculation, a woman who lives past 80 may weave some 14,000 hats in her lifetime.

Despite their industry, however, the weavers earn little -- perhaps 65 cents for an ordinary hat that may sell in the United States for from $18 to $35.

A Biblian weaver -- whose superfine hat is woven so tight that, turned upside down, it can hold water -- may earn $50 for many weeks of labor; the hat will fetch several hundred dollars in the US or abroad. Indeed, production of these top-quality hats -- the ``fino'' and ``superfino'' Panamas for which the Montecristi region has been especially famous -- is diminishing, as underpaid weavers turn to more profitable trades.

Miller vividly conveys the poverty and low status of the weavers in his depiction of a Sunday in Biblian, when the women sell their hats to Adriano Gonzalez, a wealthy middleman who buys as many as 10,000 hats at a time. Lined up in his house, the women approach him one by one; he examines each hat, praises or criticizes, sets a price. Gonzalez, who knows most of the women, is paternalistic; the women are respectful; the scene has a decidedly feudal tone.

Miller is a good storyteller; history, politics, even statistics seem to find a place in some humorous anecdote. He also seems fond of Ecuador, a country whose image, he notes, has lacked prestige in the English-speaking world. Miller pokes fun at Ecuador, but he pokes fun at pretty much everything, including his own adventures; it all seems good-natured. For the most part, his entertaining book puts a feather in the Ecuadorian straw hat.

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