Weaving the Finest Panama Hat in History
How much would you pay for the finest Panama hat in the world, handmade by the finest Panama hat-maker in the world? $5000? $20,000? $50,000? It’s a real question hanging in the air, as a Hawaiian-based hat dealer with contacts in Ecuador (where Panama hats are made, despite their traditionally misleading name) struggles to price the latest masterpiece from the hands of Simon Espinal, an unassuming 47-year-old artisan who spent eight months weaving an accessory the likes of which the world has never seen before.
The triumphant final product is described as “a creamy-white, silky-fine masterpiece averaging an astounding 4,000 pin-neat herringbone weaves per square inch; a weave so fine you'd need a jeweler's loupe to count the rows." As NPR reports, hat dealer Brent Black commissioned Espinal and promised him a steady salary over the long period of months as well as bonuses and a cut of the profits, which alone should stretch into five figures. He made the request not out of any desire for record-breaking profits, but out of curiosity—he wanted to know the true extent of Espinal’s unparalleled skill, and Espinal accepted in order to find out himself.
The extent of Espinal’s accomplishment is hard to grasp, even when compared to the usual standards for an extraordinary Panama hat. There are no enforced guidelines for grading Panama hats, as quality standards vary from one dealer to another. Even the commonly used term super fino, under which all of Espinal’s approximate three-hats-per-year output falls, is an unreliable metric by which to determine a subjective quality grade. The most objective measurement is the fineness of weave, or how many threads of toquilla palm straw are contained within a square inch of the hat. Black considers a hat with a weave count under 300 not worth owning, and one with a weave count over 900 to be exceptional. This new hat is off the charts. If records were kept of such things, Espinal would only be breaking his own: the previous best hats all hovered in the 3000 weaves-per-square-inch range, and most of them were Espinal’s creations as well.
Espinal’s hat was one-of-a-kind at the time of its completion and it looks to remain that way. He has no plans to ever replicate his feat, citing the physical strain on his eyes, as well as the intense mental concentration required to maintain focus on such an unfathomably delicate task. Espinal remains faithful to a cultural and family tradition, an art taught to him by his father Senovio. Until his death, Senovio was considered the finest weaver in Montechristi; now, the torch has passed to Simon. Black’s greatest hope is that Espinal’s masterpiece will end up in a museum, where it can join other truly great works of art.