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Not All Straw Hats Created Equally

Submitted by on March 30, 2013 – 10:36 pm 14 Comments

The six straw hats in this photo represent six different types of straw used for making straw hats. Starting in the bottom left corner and working clockwise are shantung straw, panama straw, sisol straw, baku straw, sea grass and milan straw.

Spend any time browsing straw hats online or in our shop and you will notice that there are several different types of straw listed in the descriptions. While it is not difficult to see and feel the distinctions between them in real life; many people don’t know the technical differences in the hats’ weaves and construction.

Using the photo to the right, let’s take a closer look at 6 different types of straw used in many of our summer hats.

SHANTUNG: In the bottom left corner of the photo you will see part of the crown and brim of a white straw hat. This is shantung straw. Shantung is usually a light-weight straw that is bleached to an almost pure white, about as white as the meat of an almond. Shantung straw hats are made from a flat woven sheet and blocked into fedora shapes and optimos. The off-white color helps reflect the sunlight, but the weave isn’t usually as tight on shantung hats as it is on others, so it is still possible to get burned with prolonged activity outdoors. It is quite malleable, but shantung can be easily damaged by rain and crushing, unless otherwise noted on the hat. Check out our Shantung hats here: Shantung Hats

PANAMA: Panama straw is a catch all phrase that most people say when referring to a straw hat. A true panama straw hat, like the one above the shantung hat on the left side of the photo, has a weave that radiates out from a circle in the center of the crown. The inside of a panama hat is stamped with brown ink declaring the hat was woven in Ecuador. Different types of straw may be used and woven with varying degrees of tightness as well as vent patterns. Some panama hats can be rolled up for storage. Others will be destroyed by any act of crushing or rolling. It depends on the hat and its manufacturer. To read more about the history of panama hats or how to grade them, please see our previous blog posts. Check out our Panama Straw hats here: Panama Straw Hats

SISOL: The top left corner of the photo features a sisol straw fedora. Sisol is so light weight that it makes feathers feel leaden. Highly refined and delicate, sisol straw fedoras are prized more for wearing at special events than for daily use. They are very susceptible to rain and nearly any impact. Yet, they are also nearly works of art and so light you can wear one all day without noticing pressure on your dome. Check out our Sisol Straw hats here: Sisol Hats

BAKU: Baku straw hats are so refined the straw is first used to form geometric shapes in the weave. It, too, is extremely lightweight like the sisol straw. Genuine baku straw hats are among the most expensive straw hats at Hats Plus. As much art as headwear, most people save their baku straw hats for special events. Water and rough handling is baku’s greatest enemy. Check out our Baku Straw hats here: Baku Straw Hats

SEA GRASS: Heading down a notch to the middle right-hand side hat is sea grass. For as expensive as baku is, sea grass tends to be inexpensive. Made of actual sea grass from the ocean, this type of straw hat is rarely bleached and often green hued. Frequently, seagrass hats have a more relaxed personality with open weaves for better ventilation and less shade. That is not always the case, but common enough. Usually fairly durable, sea grass straw hats are good for most any occasion. Check out our Seagrass hats here: Seagrass

MILAN: Milan straw hats, like the one in the bottom right corner, are more defined by their construction than material. A milan straw hat has many horizontal layers like clapboard siding on a house. The straw itself can be made of anything from paper to different plastics. The layering process can make these among the heaviest of the straw hats but also among the most durable. Some, certainly not all, milan straw hats are packable. Most can withstand rougher handling than other straws. Milan straw hats also tend to offer pretty good solar protection, too. Check out our Milan Straw hats: Milan Straw Hats

With any luck this helps to better distinguish the differences between the straw hats that are available. As always, we welcome your questions and comments.

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  • john j. says:

    I have a Stefano straw hat. The brim is too flemzy and won’t hold the desired shape I am looking for. Is there anything I can do to stiffen the brim to the likes similar to that of a straw cowboy hat?

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Hi John, Good question. If it is a super stingy brim, it might not snap down. However, if it is a more traditional size brim, you might have some success with steam. Fire up a tea kettle. When it starts steaming out the spout, hold the brim of the hat in the shape you want. Then slowly rotate it over the steam. You don’t want to soak the brim by holding it over the steam for long. Probably less than 20 seconds. Continue to hold the brim in shape once you have taken it away from the steam. Let it dry this way for several minutes. This is sometimes enough to reshape it. If it only took the new shape part way, repeat the process. Sometimes you can use a starch spray like your dry cleaner uses to iron your shirts. Make sure it is a color safe starch. Test it on something safe first to make sure it won’t ruin the color of your straw brim. People have been known to ruin their hats with starch, so be very careful. It does not take much to help hold the hat’s shape.

  • William Sladek says:

    I’m considering a second hat, either a Dobbs Eldorado or a Stetson Andover in Ivory/Black. How can I know the Milan material isn’t plastic, which makes me think “cheap?” Thanks. By the way, I love your hat collection and I grew up in Chicago, just off Irving Park Road, so I feel like I’m home whenever I wear one of your hats.

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Hi William, Sorry to take so long getting back to you. The Milan straw in most hats really is plastic. However, both the Eldorado and the Andover are very nice hats that don’t look “cheap” when you see them in person. The Eldorado is a little more distinguished and refined. The Andover is a little more playful with its two-tone design. They are so different, it really depends on what outfits with which you intend to wear them and what type of personality traits you want most to portray. Best of luck, and please ask more questions as you have them. We’ll try to be a bit quicker to respond next time around. –Nathaniel

  • William Sladek says:

    A great article and the articles on the History and Grading of Panama hats was very insightful. Thanks.

  • Danielle Garner says:

    I have a sea grass hat that was accidentally packed up for several days with a wet cloth in the same bag. It has mildewed and is smelly. How can I clean it?

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Hi Danielle, I’m afraid there isn’t anything that can be done at this point. Straw hats are notoriously difficult to fix. The mildew is likely there to stay. Even if you were to try dabbing it with bleach, that would likely discolor the straw and make it more brittle. Leaving it to dry out in the hot sun will likely shrink it. Most likely it is time to bid a fond adieu to your trusty hat. I wish I had better news. –Nathaniel

  • Elizabeth Ingram says:

    I have had success treating mildew/mold on shoes, hats, etc. with white vinegar & water lightly sprayed and/or wiped then immediately placing in the midday sun. This was recommended on the EPA website for safely treating mildew/mold. Vinegar supposedly kills 82% of mold.

  • John says:

    Great article! I’ve noticed in the past few years, that many hats are being made of “paper straw” nowadays. Is paper straw what it sounds like; straw made out of paper? If that is the case, then is it safe to presume that the quality of a paper straw hat is less than that of a natural straw hat?

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Yes, more hats are being made of paper “straw.” Generally, these hats are not as high a quality as other straws. However, there are definitely exceptions. If it is made by a name brand you recognize, then odds are good that it was very carefully crafted. Many are often also treated with special moisture protectants. As with any hat, the better you take care of it, the longer it will last.

  • Colin hammond says:

    Good info. Thank you.
    I have a Pinzano milan hat. Partly due to the fact that I shave my head, I have a sweat stain ring in the crown. I have read elsewhere that mild soap and water with a cloth will help to remove that. Do you have any other suggestions?
    Thank you.

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Hi Colin,
      Water is the greatest enemy of straw hats. Even with mild soap and water, the straw is liable to shrink as it dries. We don’t have any great suggestions for removing sweat stains. Your best bet is simply getting a new hat. Predictable coming from a hat shop, right? Unfortunately, water will likely ruin the hat, and the stain can’t be sanded out. If the stain is low enough, perhaps you could get a new hat band to cover the stain. Call Hats Plus, as they sell loose bands you can wear over your old band or stained straw. Best of luck.

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