I read about molas in our Lonely Planet guide so was on the lookout for them. Panama is different in lots of ways from many tourist destinations. They do not promote crafts and souvenirs quite the same way as most countries. So it took a trip out of Panama City to a local village market square in the Anson Valley area to find the molas I was looking for.
OK, what is a mola?
The mola or molas, forms part of the traditional outfit of a Kuna woman in Panama, two mola panels being incorporated 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.
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 geometrical 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 Panama.
Molas have their origin in body painting. Only after colonization of Panama by the Spanish and contact with missionaries did the Kuna, an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia, start to transfer their traditional geometric designs on 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 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 have 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 crafting of molas either after they reach puberty, some even at a much younger age.
After the attempt of the Panamanian government to “westernize” the Kuna in the beginning of the 20th century by forbidding 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 had to make the concession of giving the Kuna people the right to govern their own territory autonomously.
Molas are handmade using a reverse applique technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-colored 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.
So, enough of the history lesson. I bought two panels – one for me and one for Nicki my daughter-in-law in FL. I hope she doesn’t see this blog before I give it to her but here is what I bought:
See below for some close up shots.
The variety of molas I examined were amazing and no matter what the skill level, they are beautiful works of art.
We did find a temporary craft market in Panama City that had more molas but not quite as well made as these. I’m glad I found them and hope Nicki likes it as much as I do.