Posted by Avital Pinnick on July 21, 2009
What are molas?
Molas are reverse-appliqued panels made by the Kuma Indians of the San Blas Islands in northeastern Panama. Originally part of the traditional Kuma woman’s costume, molas were made in pairs and adorned the front and back of a blouse. During the 70s, the Peace Corps introduced treadle sewing machines in a well-intentioned attempt to speed up the production process, which led to large-scale production of poor-quality molas for the tourist trade.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, the mola tradition is only about 100 years old and probably evolved from the custom of body-painting. The Smithsonian site shows an old mola that can be rotated for viewing (you need to have the QuickTime plug-in installed) and an extensive bibliography on the Kuna Indians and their mola art.
My Mola Quest
I’ve always loved molas. I really wanted to own one but Jerusalem is a long way from Panama….
Every August, the Jerusalem municipality sponsors Hutzot haYotzer, an international arts and crafts festival. There is live music, dance performances, scores of local Israeli artists, and dozens of international pavilions. Despite the crowds and generally high prices, I went last year in August, 2008, and found that there was a booth selling things from Panama!
The Panama booth had piles of machine-made molas, not of very high quality. They were machine-sewn, with exposed raw edges and untrimmed threads hanging from the finished design. After looking half-heartedly through all the piles, I was about to give up. Then I looked up and saw a mola sewn into a cheap canvas bag, the kind you get as a freebie at high tech conferences, tacked high on the back wall. Wow! A hand-made mola!
I asked the sellers, who spoke no Hebrew and very little English, whether they had other hand-made molas. They repeated, several times, “All our molas are made by hand by the Indians.” I tried pointing to the machine stitching of one mola and the hand stitching of the other, but I got the same answer. So I bought the bag, which cost four times (approximately $35 US) as much as the unmounted molas, and hoped that the mola hadn’t been made into a bag because of cigarette burns or bug damage.
This is what the mola looked like when I bought it, mounted on the outside flap of a shoulder bag (below).
I dismantled the bag and carefully unpicked the stitches of the binding (below).
I was delighted to find that the mola was intact. Not even the edges of the applique triangles had been damaged by the mounting process, although they were trimmed rather close.
The stitching is mind-boggling. There are 32 chain stitches per inch and 24 applique stitches per inch, as you can see in the photo with the ruler below.
The mola shows signs of wear on the back, indicating that it was cut from a blouse when its maker grew tired of it or needed the money. The fine stitching and the fading also indicate that it was not produced for the tourist industry.
I like the idea that this mola was proudly worn by its maker years ago. I’m glad it didn’t end up as the outside flap of a bag. Although molas are quite durable, the embroidery stitches and old fabric would not stand up to that kind of treatment for long.
Here is a photo of the back of the mola:
This is a two-layer mola, which makes it a fairly simple example, although the workmanship is outstanding. If it were three or more layers, it would be worth more. The blue layer is the base layer. The red cloth is the second layer, slashed and stitched to show the blue background.
The other motifs, triangles and stripes, are small pieces appliqued to the blue or red layers. Its style seems to indicate that its age is about 20-30 years, since embroidered embellishment was a fairly late development. Also, the fish design indicates that it is not an old mola. The oldest molas were not embroidered and tended to have geometric patterns. The animal and tree patterns were more popular among tourists, so most modern molas reflect this preference.
More sources of information on molas
- Tutorial for making a simple mola
- The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama 32 pieces from the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian This collection has photos of molas from the 1920s. The photos are a bit small, but it is unusual to find older molas on the Web.
- Piecework Magazine published an article (“In the Land of Sun and Sea: Molas and Their Makers”) on molas and instructions for a mola sewing kit in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue. This article is not available on the Web and Interweave does not have this issue listed among their available back issues.
- Wikipedia article on molas
- Galen Frysinger’s site, People and Places of the World, has good photos of molas.