It is very common for people to walk into our stores, wearing a Panama hat that is obviously too small. It sits perched on their head, way above their ears and it keeps falling off. When they purchased their hat, it fitted exactly right, and after a while, it shrank and became useless, like shoes too small.
Whenever we ship a hat, we always allow for shrinkage so that this can never occur. However, if you have purchased the wrong size from elsewhere, then you can still work it out.
There are several reasons that your hat will shrink :
1. You leave it in your car, and it gets baked into a smaller size - the sun literally cooks it.
2. You get it wet and dry it too quickly (leaving it in the sun or using a heater) rather than drying it on your head.
3. Sweat Absorption; When you wear a Panama, it absorbs all of the sweat on your head, wicking it to the outside of the hat, and through evaporation cooling your head. It is one of the reasons Panamas are so damn good. Not only is your head cooler, but you don't get sweat running down your neck or face. The side effect of this is that every time you wear it, it has to dry out, and it shrinks a tiny amount each time.
4. You bought the wrong sized hat.
5. Your hair has grown, thus making your head bigger.
6. You have a leather inner sweatband, and this always shrinks over time and becomes rigid.
What can you do about a Panama hat that has become too small?
There are several options, depending on the degree of stretching that is required:
1. Take it to a hatmaker and have them stretch your hat. Ideally, they overstretch it by 2cm and put some stiffener in, to help hold the larger shape. After it has been stretched it will shrink back a little, so overstretching is very important with a Panama. The hat holds a memory of its shrunken shape and will return to it unless you firmly disagree.
2. Stretch it yourself. There is a huge range of hat stretchers designed for this purpose. From electric stretchers, down to the simple Hat-Jack which you insert inside the crown, and wind out to the desired size. It is vitally important that the hat is warm and moist before you try to stretch it or you will crack it. Here is how to steam a Panama hat. If you have a big head, this is an essential tool to own.
3. Take out the Sweatband. This is probably the simplest solution to the problem and requires nothing more than a blade or scissors. If you remove the inner sweatband, it increases the size by 1-2cm, which is often more than enough. Simply cut the threads holding the sweatband in, and pull it out. It is not uncomfortable without it, but it may slip off your head more easily in the wind.
4. Lengthen the Hatband. The band on the outside of your hat acts as a belt to keep the hat snug. Old cowboy hats used real belts, in order to adjust the size when riding. If this band is too tight for your head, you can remove one end of the band, and make it a little larger. It requires some basic sewing skills but can make a big difference. You can then warm up your hat and pull it down on your head to stretch it. Note: if the band on your shrunken hat is floppy, then there is no point in doing this.
5. Stretch it over your knee. Now, this is more of a desperate solution, but I have done it many times, especially on holidays. It is important that your hat is warm and moist from wearing & sweating in it. Place your hands inside the hat and place the other end over your knee and pull hard. I am a big man, and I can pull with all my might, and it usually gives me just enough room. If your hat has cracks, holes or tears, do not do this. Take it slowly and keep building the pressure.
How much can I stretch my Panama hat? Realistically, with the right tools and some patience, you can stretch it by around 2-3 sizes. If you are stretching out a vintage hat, you will need to be careful as it will be more brittle. Sometimes you will need to replace the sweatband, and often you will lengthen the hatband. Depending on the shape of the crown, over-stretching it can make your hat look a bit weird, because the middle of the crown stretches, but not the top. After you stretch it, give it a light steam and straighten things out again.
Why do large-sized Panama hats shrink? When a Panama hat is made, the unfinished hat (or hood) is steamed until it is like wet paper. It is then pulled over a mould and blocked into shape. Usually all these hoods are the same size. That means every hat size, is made from the same sized hood. So the bigger your head is, the more it has been stretched and the more likely it is to shrink back. Ironically, people with big heads, are cursed by hats that shrink more. Just to have a gloat, we now have a range of size 65/XXXL hats in the King - it makes some people very very happy.
If this is all too confusing, then send me an email with a picture of your hat on your head. Every Panama hat is by nature, different. Different weaves and grades will shrink in different ways. The most popular Brisa weave, is more likely to shrink than any other, because of the loose airiness of its weave. Very high-quality finos like a Montichristi barely shrink at all.
I hope this guide has given you a chance to revive an old hat. Recycling hats is good for the world, and well-worn hats are very beautiful things. They tell the story of all the adventures you have been on together.