Kuna woman selling Molas in Panama City, by Markus Leupold-Löwenthal. Some Rights Reserved CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A molas made in the San Blas Islands of Panama by master mola maker Venancio Restrepo. The design is traditional. This closeup shows the fine stitching typical of the best molas, as well as the layering of the reverse-applique technique. By Johantheghost. Some Rights Reserved, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for sale at her home in the San Blas Islands. By Johantheghost, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The mola or molas, forms part of the traditional outfit of a Kuna woman in Panama. Two mola panels belong together as front and back panels in a blouse. The full costume traditionally includes a patterned wrapped skirt (saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (musue), arm and leg beads (wini), a gold nose ring (olasu) and earrings in addition to the mola blouse (dulemor).
In Dulegaya, the Kuna’s native language, “mola” means “shirt” or “clothing”. The mola originated with the tradition of Kuna women painting their bodies with geometric designs, using available natural colors; in later years these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panamá.
Molas are handmade using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-coloured cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. This is achieved by using a thread the same color as the layer being sewn, sewing blind stitches, and sewing tiny stitches. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.
The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colours beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colours; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colours, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations of colour.
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.
Molas will often be found for sale with signs of use, such as stitch marks around the edges; such imperfections indicate that the mola was made for use, and not simply for sale to tourists. A mola can take from two weeks to six months to make, depending on the complexity of the design.
The traditional costume of a Kuna woman consists of a patterned blue cotton wrapped skirt, red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beads, gold nose rings and earrings and the many layered and finely sewn mola panel blouse.
The artistry of a mola reflects a synthesis of traditional Kuna culture with the influences of the modern world. Mola art developed when Kuna women had access to store bought yard goods. Mola designs are often inspired by modern graphics such as political posters, labels, pictures from books and TV cartoons, as well as traditional themes from Kuna legends and culture.
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.
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.
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.
Molas are often sold in pairs, the pair consisting of the back and front panels of a blouse. The two molas are usually two variations on a theme. Matched molas complement each other and should be displayed or used together for the greatest impact.
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.
Molas are very sturdy and well sewn. Authentic molas have already been washed many times and can be safely hand washed in warm water. Molas may be purchased in Panama or in Colombia.
The mola blouse is an important symbol of Kuna culture.
Molas have their origin in body painting. Only after colonization by the Spanish and contact with missionaries did the Kuna start to transfer their traditional geometric designs on fabric, first by painting directly on the fabric and later by using the technique of reverse appliqué. It is not known for certain when this technique was first used. It is assumed[by whom?] 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 have been used for body painting before. In the past 50 years, they have also depicted realistic and abstract designs of flowers, sea animals and birds, and popular culture.
Depending on the tradition of each island, Kuna women begin the crafting of molas either after they reach puberty, or at a much younger age. Women who prefer to dress in western style are in the minority as well as in the communities in Panama City.
Molas have such an importance for the Kuna and their traditional identity that they can be considered responsible for the independent status of the Comarca San Blas. After the attempt of the Panamanian government to "westernize" the Kuna in the beginning of the 20th century by prohibiting their customs, their language and their traditional dress, a huge wave of resistance arose. This resistance movement culminated in the Kuna revolution of 1925 where, after heavy battles, the Panamanian government gave the Kuna people the right to govern their own territory autonomously.