Grades of Quality of Panama Hats

Grades of Quality of Panama Hats

Greenstreet style Montecristi Panama hatGreenstreet style Montecristi Panama hatGreenstreet style Montecristi Panama hatGreenstreet style Montecristi Panama hatGreenstreet style Montecristi Panama hatGreenstreet style Montecristi Panama hat
Comparing grades of Panama hatscloseup of Panama hat weave

1. Introduction

Hat grades? Let’s make it simple. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing. Sure, everyone talks about them. They even seem to be using the same words, or the same numbers. But Panama hat “grades” are not like coin or stamp grades. With coins and stamps, there are industry-wide grading systems and standards. Different sellers use the same grade names, terms, and descriptions to mean the same things. But with Panama hats, anything goes. There are no industry-wide grading systems, no standards, no strong trade association, no regulatory body. Not surprisingly, there are many more sellers of “Super Fino” Montecristi hats than there are weavers of Super Fino Montecristi hats.

Sorting Panama hats

Sorting hats in Cuenca

2. Numeric Hat Grades

Summary: Many sellers use “hat grade” numbers to describe their hats. Disregard. Useless. Like comparing apples and oranges and aardvarks. Everyone uses a different “system.”

Branding Panama hats

Using a branding iron to put the company mark in hats in Cuenca

Panama hat invoice showing hat grade

3. Word Hat Grades

Summary: Montecristi Panama hat “grades” are often expressed as Fino, Fino Fino, Super Fino. Some sellers make up their own “grades,” such as Ultrafino, or Museum Quality. Since the sellers all use the terms to mean whatever they want, these hat “grades” are useless to you, the consumer, as a way to compare hats from different sellers. Disregard all such hat “grade” terms.

Sadly, the same problems also apply to “grades” of Montecristi Panama hats. As stated earlier, there is no “official” grading system. There is no regulatory body. There are no Hat Grade Police. Each manufacturer or retailer or whatever wants to sell his merchandise. So he presents it in the best possible light. This sometimes may include overstating the quality. Imagine that. A seller overstating the quality of his/her product.

Buying Montecristi Panama hats

Your humble hat servant in Píle (near Montecristi)

Panama hats as high as an elephant's eye

Your humble hat servant in Cuenca

Montecristi Panama hat sign

Rosendo Delgado’s sign in 1988

I have seen ads and Internet listings for Montecristi Panamas that the sellers say are Super Finos, but the prices say no they’re not. I like to know what’s going on in the marketplace, so sometimes I order one of these suspiciously low priced “Super Finos.” So far, they have all been average, or below average, hats. But a real Super Fino should be an awesome hat. And priced accordingly. Obviously, the “system” of Fino, Fino Fino, Super Fino, etc. does not mean doodly squat in the real world marketplace.

Montecristi Panama hat weaver

Master Weaver in Píle

Top Banana

This guy must be the top banana

Big Papayas

She has the biggest pair of papayas I’ve ever seen

Mona Who?

Mona who?

Colorful Ecuadorian folk dancers

Pretty Maids All in a Row

That is why I do not use any of the common “hat grade” terms to describe my hats. And why I decided not to use the naming system I made up myself to describe different levels of quality. It’s time to get rid of all of those meaningless “hat grades.” It’s time for a Panama hat grading system that really works. One that is easy to understand, that makes sense, that is more fact than opinion. And most important of all—it’s time for everyone to start using the same system.

4. Counting the Rings

Summary: Counting the rings inside the crown of a Panama hat is interesting and fun, but it is not a reliable way to judge the quality of the hat.

Panama hat rings

This is a finely woven Montecristi Panama hat turned inside out so you can see the rings.

You may have heard that you can judge the quality of a Panama hat by holding it up to the light and counting the number of rings visible on the inside of the crown.

Well, that works some of the time. Maybe even most of the time. But there are enough times that it doesn’t work, that I would recommend against using this as your primary way of judging quality.

I learned this the very first time I went to Montecristi and compared hats.

When I buy hats in Montecristi, I pay no attention whatsoever to how many rings they have. I look at the hats themselves, not at the rings.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at the rings in the crown. It’s interesting. Hold the hat up to a strong light and look at the inside of the crown. You’ll see the rings. You might even want to count them. I sometimes do. But don’t let the number of rings determine which hat you buy or how much you pay.

Of course, if you’re shopping on the Internet and you can’t look at the hats themselves, well, maybe it’s worth asking. For certain, a hat with three rings is not a fine quality hat. And a hat with twenty-seven rings probably is a finely woven hat.

A better way to judge the fineness of weave of a hat you can’t see is to ask the seller to count how many rows of weave there are per inch. I am working with The Montecristi Foundation to develop a comprehensive, objective grading system and nomenclature for determining the relative quality of Panama hats.

5. How To Measure Fineness

Summary: The best way to measure the fineness of a woven hat is to count the rows of weave per inch (or 2.5 centimeters), first horizontally then vertically.

“How finely woven is the hat?” is usually the first thing someone wants to know about a Panama hat. With most woven items (fine cottons, oriental rugs, etc.), quality is at least partly determined by how many strands per inch there are in the weave. The same is true of Panama hats.

The grading systems used by the exporters in Ecuador that give a number to describe the hat grade, such as Grade 10/11, are based upon counting the rows of weave per unit of measurement (usually a centimeter). But then they complicate it by taking the number of rows of weave actually counted and multiplying it by this and subtracting that and dividing by something else etc., until each of them ends up with a different number to describe the same hat.

Unfinished Montecristi Panama hat

Unfinished hat

Weaving Montecristi Panama hats

Mother and daughter weaving

Of course, since the fineness of weave is never completely, exactly identical throughout the hat, one could search around on the hat to find a spot where the weave is finer than elsewhere on the hat. Even so, you still have more real information with “20 rows of weave per inch” than you would with “it’s a Fino Fino.” 20 rows of weave per inch is a fact. Fino Fino is an opinion.

The Montecristi Foundation grading system begins with a single number called the Montecristi Cuenta.

Fineness of Weave, HorizontalFineness of Weave, Vertical

Now multiply the two numbers together. 23 x 27 = 621. The number 621 would be what is called the Montecristi Cuenta for this particular hat.

This is a very finely woven hat. A hat with a Montecristi Cuenta over 900 is a rare treasure. A hat with a Montecristi Cuenta under 300 is not an especially noteworthy hat.

Did you try to count the rows of weave yourself? It’s not easy, is it? It’s hard even in the photo above where I digitally sharpened the lines and boosted the contrast; it’s harder to count when looking at the hat itself. Manually counting the rows of weave is a tedious task. In order for me to be able to do this with every single hat I have in inventory (over 2000 Montecristi hats), or when I am purchasing hats in Montecristi, I would need some sort of handheld scanner to speed up the process.

Grading hats with a magnifying glass

Counting the rows of weave with a hand lens is a tedious task.

Montecristi Guide

The first person I met in Montecristi

6. Other Grading Factors

Summary: In addition to fineness of weave, any system for grading Panama hats must also take into consideration the quality of the weave and the color of the straw because they are also factors in the overall desirability of the hat.

Weaving a Fine Monecristi Panama Hat

A fine hat in progress

Judging the color of the straw is even more subjective than the quality of the weaving. The photo to the right shows five different Montecristi hat brims. Each is a different color. I have no objection to any of them. Is one color “better” than another? You might prefer one shade over another, but someone else might prefer a different one.

A hat that has an even color throughout is probably quite acceptable. A hat that has one area where the straw is obviously different than the rest of the hat is probably less desirable.

Colors of Panama Hat Straw

Different colors of straw

Panama Hat Straw Drying

Straw drying near Montecristi

7. How I Grade and Price Hats

Summary: First, I look at the hat for an overall impression of how visually appealing the hat is. Then I consider fineness, weave quality, and straw color.

Montecristi Panama hats drying in sun

Montecristi hats in Montecristi

But Fineness is only one factor. It may be the most important factor. It is usually what people want to know about first. Even so, Fineness is still just one part of the total equation.

The hat we looked at above in section 5, for which we counted the weave, was 23 by 27, a finely woven hat. So, if I told you that another hat was 30 by 23, you would know that is even more finely woven than the first.

So then it should be worth more, right?

Montecristi Panama hat apaleadores

Apaleadores in Montecristi

Badly woven Montecristi Panama hat

Finely woven, but not well woven

Not necessarily. We need to see how well woven it is.

Look at the photo on the left. There is an area on this hat that counts 30 by 23. And overall it is a finely woven hat. But you can see easily that the rows of weave are not even close to being straight. The thickness of the individual straws varies significantly. There are irregularly woven areas that look very different from the surrounding weave. And many other very visible flaws.

Compare the weave above with the weave to the right. The hat above is more finely woven. But which hat would you prefer to own? I think most people would prefer the beautifully woven hat to the right over the more finely woven hat shown above.

To me, the hat above is so irregularly woven that its price should be significantly lower than the price of the hat to the right. Possibly as much as 3 or 4 price levels lower.

So when I price hats, I start with Fineness of Weave. I count, or estimate, the fineness and set a price based solely on that.

Next I look at the Quality of Weave. If the Quality of Weave is within what I consider to be an average range, then I stay with the price assigned to the hat based solely on fineness. If the Quality of Weave is significantly better than average, I would give the hat a +1, or possibly even a +2, meaning that I would raise the price by one or two levels. Conversely, if the Quality of Weave is significantly below average, then I would give the hat a -1, or possibly even a -2, meaning that I would lower the price by one or two levels.

When pricing the irregularly woven hat above, I gave it a -2 for Quality of Weave. The beautifully woven hat above right was given a +1 for quality of weave.

The third factor is Color of Straw. If the Color of Straw is exceptionally clear and even, then I would give the hat a +1. If the Color of Straw is a problem due to excessive amounts of gray or red straw, then I would give the hat a -1, possibly even a -2.

I am more likely to buy a hat with irregular weave than with color problems. To me, a finely woven hat is desirable even if there are irregularities in the weave. Generally, one has to look closely to see the irregularities. But a color problem is obvious and detracts immediately from the appeal of the hat.

So the combination of Fineness of Weave, Quality of Weave, and Color of Straw determines the price for the hat. The unblocked hat.

The other factor that affects the price of any particular hat is the shaping and finishing. It is more costly to shape a hat with high quality hand-blocking done in the US than with a hydraulic press in Ecuador, or in the US.

There are only 5, maybe 6, craftsmen in the US who can do high quality hand-blocking of Montecristi hats. (Naturally, I think my own hand-blocking is superior to any of the others.)

I have never seen a hat that was hand-blocked in Ecuador that came anywhere close to meeting my standards. Of course, I do admit to being an unrepentant perfectionist. Hats that have been hand-blocked in Ecuador may look fine to you. You may prefer lower cost over higher quality and superior aesthetic.

However, let’s say you could examine two hats side by side. The two hats are identical, except that one was hand-blocked and finished in Ecuador, and the other was hand-blocked and finished by me. I believe the differences would be immediately obvious to you.

See also Why One Hat Costs More than Another.

Well woven Montecristi Panama hat

Finely woven, and well woven

Weaving a Montecristi Panama hatMontecristi Panama hats, blocked and unblockedHand-blocked Montecristi Panama hatsGatsby Style Montecristi Panama HatYoung Weaver of Montecristi Panama Hats

The future of Montecristi hats is literally in her hands

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Text and photos © 1988-2017, B. Brent Black. All rights reserved.

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