Panama hats are made from a special straw, called toquilla in Spanish, that is native to Ecuador. While small amounts of this straw are exported to bordering countries, and some plants are exported for their ornamental characteristics, large quantities of this material simply cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
That's one reason why 95% of all Panama hats are made in Ecuador.
The Panama hat's signature toquilla palm grows naturally in the low-lying coastal plains of tropical Ecuador. Once harvested, the soft interior leaves are separated from the brittle outer parts of the plant. The sheaves are boiled in water, and then the palm ribbons are separated and dried. Once dry, the toquilla is ready to be selected and woven into straw hats.
No Two Panamas are Quite Alike
One distinctive feature of toquilla straw is that it cannot be woven by machine. The straw is rather fragile in its raw, natural state, so it must be woven completely by hand. Because of this, each and every Panama hat is unique. A Panama hat is truly a representation of the straw that composes it and the weaver who crafted it.
If it Ain't Toquilla, it Ain't a Panama!
You will find some so-called Panama hats that were mass produced by machinery. These are typically made from paper or synthetic fiber. These are not Panama hats.
You will see that they do not compare to the handwoven toquilla straw of a genuine Panama hat. They do not breathe well, and they do not wear as long.