Last year, there was a wonderful exhibition at The Textile Museum of Canada which showed an array of mola blouses and their striking panels constructed from multiple layers of brilliantly-colored cloth, cut and appliquéd by Kuna women in a complex technique that actually uses the simplest technology: just needles, thread and scissors.
Molas are the colorful, multi-layered appliqué panels of blouses worn by Kuna women of Panama. The Kuna live in a region called Kuna Yala, which means “Kuna Land.” This area, more formally known as the San Blas Archipelago, lies off the eastern coast of Panama. Molas developed after Spanish colonization, in particular within the past 100 years when cotton yard cloth became commonly available to the Kuna. The intricately designed and sewn molas are attached to the front and/or back of women’s blouses and are considered a major form of artistic expression and ethnic identity. Together with the blue print cotton skirts, the red and orange headscarves, the nose ring and earrings and the characteristic glass bead strings on wrists and ankles they represent the traditional dress of the Kuna women.
Becoming famous in the last couple of decades, Molas are now shown in museums and private collections of textile art all around the world. Those molas, whose completion, take more than hundred hours have higher collectors value.
Only those Mola blouses, which are intended for daily use are machine-made. Due to the intensive sunlight they are exposed to, the colours will fade quickly and look dull. Those Molas fashioned for special ceremonies and to the pride of their owners are always hand-made.
Molas have their origin in body painting. Only after the colonization by the Spanish and contact with missionaries the Kuna started to transfer their traditional geometric designs onto fabric, first by painting directly on the fabric and later by using the technique of reverse application. It is not known for certain, when this technique was first being used. It is assumed that the oldest Molas are between 150 and 170 years old.
As an inspiration for their designs the Kuna first used the geometrical patterns, which had previously been used for body painting before. In the past 50 years they also started to depict realistic and abstract designs of flowers, sea animals and birds.
Depending on the tradition of each island, Kuna women begin the crafting of Molas either after they reach puberty, or even at a much younger age. Women who prefer to dress in western style are in the minority on the islands, as well as in the Kuna communities in Panama City.
For many decades Panamanian government officials and missionaries tried to “civilize these Indians” by encouraging – or forcing them to give up their beliefs and customs. Then in 1925 the Kuna fought back. Police, teachers, missionaries and the Panamanian governor fled from the islands. The American ambassador was asked to intervene. A temporary settlement that amounted to partial autonomy for the Kuna was signed. Further negotiations were difficult, but there was no genocide and no civil war. In 1938 a self-governing province called Kuna Yala was established as a part of Panama. It included all the 365 Kuna islands and a strip of adjacent territory along the shore. Today the Kuna are recognized as one of the world’s most politically sophisticated indigenous groups.
Shortly before the 1925 revolution, Panamanian authorities issued an order that Kuna women could no longer wear their traditional mola blouses, patterned with cultural and religious symbols. The Kuna found this absolutely unacceptable. The edict was resisted and today the mola blouses continue to be proudly worn as the embodiment of Kuna culture.
The tools and supplies needed to design and make a Mola are simple and basic: cotton fabric, thread, a pencil, scissors, a thimble and a needle. In the 1970s, the Peace Corp arrived in the San Blas Islands with treadle sewing machines. Their purpose was to help the Kuna Women in their Mola making by teaching them how to use these machines. The artists quickly rejected the automation and returned to the simple needle and thread process to accomplish their intricate work. A sewing machine is sometimes used to secure Molas to garments, purses and other commercial items.
Molas are usually done in reverse appliqué technique, using two or more layers of cloth and cutting through to reveal the color underneath. The designs and patterns used are particular to the maker and incorporate both traditional and modern elements. Early mola designs were related to pre-Hispanic body painting; today, mola designs may include abstract geometric designs, motifs from the natural world, or themes related to politics, popular culture, or Kuna legends.
Nature unquestionably dominates the Mola theme: birds, animals, sea-life, plants and flowers are the subject of many pieces. Tribal teachings, superstitions and village life are also recorded in the fabric panels. The influx of North Americans after the construction of the Panama Canal gave the Kuna women even more subjects to sew into their blouses. The wealth of graphic images from magazines, comic books, trademarks, labels and advertisements offer endless ideas for Mola design. Of course, traditional geometric cut-outs remain popular. Geometric molas are the most traditional, having developed from ancient body painting designs. Many hours of careful sewing are required to create a fine mola. The ability to make an outstanding mola is a source of status among Kuna women.
A Mola panel can have two to seven layers of cloth. The layers of fabric, cut in rectangles from a variety of colors, are basted together one layer at a time, and a design is sketched with pencil on the top layer of cloth. The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colors beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colors; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colors, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations of color. The more traditional Mola is pure appliqué, however, some artists of late are using embroidery stitches to enhance their work.
Most of the Mola is sewn with a blind stitch or hem stitch. With each layer, the artist cuts away another part of the design, turns the edges and stitches to the lower layers. This continues until the final image is achieved. When a color is chosen for a small section of the Mola, the artist often inserts a small piece of fabric in only the area where it will be used. Some of the more experienced Kuna women can even work without sketches. The fabric most often selected for use is cotton. Red, black and orange are the dominant colors used, however, every color imaginable can be found in the accent fabrics used.
Molas vary greatly in quality, and the pricing to buyers varies accordingly. A greater number of layers is generally a sign of higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but examples with four or more layers will demand a better price. The quality of stitching is also a factor, with the stitching on the best molas being close to invisible. Although some molas rely on embroidery to some degree to enhance the design, those which are made using only the pure reverse-appliqué technique (or nearly so) are considered better.
The quality of a mola is determined by such factors as
- the number of layers
- fineness of the stitching
- evenness and width of cutouts
- addition of details such as zigzag borders, lattice-work or embroidery
- general artistic merit of the design and color combination.
Molas are made in pairs, one for the front and one for the back of a blouse. The front and back molas are never identical (because they are hand made), but they are always related, either as two versions of the same design, or as complimentary designs on the same theme. The Kuna word for this is “akala-emala” – the same only different.
When Kuna women tire of a particular blouse, they disassemble it and sell the molas to collectors. Since mola panels have been worn as part of the traditional dress of a Kuna woman they often show signs of wear such as fading and stitch marks along the edges of the panels. These "imperfections" indicate that the mola is authentic and not made solely to be sold to tourists. They are very sturdy and well sewn. Authentic molas have already been washed many times and can be safely hand washed in warm water.
Mola panels have many uses. They can be framed as art or made into pillows, place mats or wall hangings. Some people even make them into bedspreads or incorporate them into quilting projects.
What are the criteria in judging a mola? I will say that is all about your personal sensitivity and taste, however many molas are bound to captivate your eyes and your heart at a very first glimpse. This is a unique Art of great beauty and mysterious origin. A mola should be enjoyed as a piece of magnificent artwork, which allows the viewer to experience a cultural awakening.
And finally, what could be the future of the Kunas? We don’t know… It’s only the Kuna people, who can choose their own way, preserve their traditions, art and magnificent culture, meanwhile they become part of the world that surrounds them.