MOLAS
technique, history & the women who make them

This kind of article is intriguing to work on since I learn a lot more while finding all the links and images than I imagined I would. One of the things I love about textiles is how they lead to so much more than "just" their technique and how-to information. And, searching for information about molas for this feature lead into some interesting nooks and crannies of the Web. You'll see links here for ethnobotany, matriarchal sociology of the Cuna Indians (sometimes spelled Kuna) and much more. Textiles are such an integral part of the life of humans that they help us to understand the history and origin of a people and their customs.

About the Molas, Cuna Indians and the San Blas Archipelego

The Cuna Indians live in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. In the Cuna society all decisions are made by women. An article discusses the origins of the tribe (believed to be Carib-descended) and other features of their society.

All About Molas is an excellent article by Georgia Corin. Read this page to understand: What is a mola? The women sew the molas, which in their wardrobe are used to form the front and back of a loose fitting blouse. There are men who sew molas, this is due to there being a high rate of albinism among the men who must therefore stay inside out of the sun and these men help sew molas.

In 1964 a Mola Cooperative was formed by the 300 Cuna women with the help of the Peace Corps, today more than 2000 women are active.

For a book on Cuna (Kuna) culture: The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning among the Kuna of Panama from the Fowler Museum. 

Cuna words used in association with molas give a range of the kinds of images found in molas -- these can range from everyday objects (coke bottles, wash boards) to images of dreams and visions,  frogs, birds, fish, lizards, turtles, stars and more. Early molas were more often abstract such as this bird. I love the simple abstract design molas.

Tourism sales demand more colorful and complex designs and have changed the designs somewhat. These wild mola-inspired coats are an example.

A very interesting and wide-ranging Mola site on the Web is that of Sherry Thorup, the gallery is lovely and she also has a Bulletin Board for Mola enthusiasts.  She also has a sequence of How Molas are Made.

How are molas made?

Molas are made by an applique process referred to as "reverse applique". Rather than putting small pieces of fabric on top of larger pieces and sewing them down as is done in regular applique, reverse applique is done by layer fabrics and cutting through the top layers to expose the underlying fabrics. This image shows 5 layers basted together and the design sketched on the top, red layer. This detailed closeup image from Sherry's site shows the stitching very well (warning: 81K image). Sherry has an excellent description of Making a Mola at her site which will explain things well. (tip: there is a cutting and sewing image that looks not linked, but click on the "?" and you'll still see it showing the layers nicely.

Molas are a fun project for adults and children, alike. Here's instruction for making a paper mola with children. And here an article on using Indigenous Art projects with children.

There are not a lot of books on mola making, but we are lucky to have a recent one by Charlotte Patera, Mola Techniques for Today's Quilters (Amer. Quilter's Soc Publ.). Another earlier book by Charlotte Patera which is useful for learning the technique of reversed applique is called Schoolhouse Applique (C&T Publ.). Another book to watch for is Secrets of Reverse Applique by Agnew Holbrook Jevne (from American School of Needlework).

Bob and Elizabeth Gibson give a list of recommended reading on Molas on their Web site. The Gibson's have very interesting images of their mola collection on their Web site, unfortunately they used GIFs instead of jpg's so the images are very large for downloading, but worth the wait.

Buying Molas on the Web?

There are several sites for buying molas on the Web. This is not a recommendation, I've never bought molas from any dealers on the Web, but since I ran across places and have linked to images, I'll list a few here:

The Panart site has some lovely mola photos 
JK Worthy's site has lots of thumbnail molas to see
Folkart and Craft Exchange has well done image thumbnails
If you check the
Board on Sherry's site I mention above you'll see comments from other vendors of Molas.

Cuna and San Blas ethnobotany, activism and information

While I was finding mola information I ran across these interesting sites:

Panama's Kuna Indians Welcome Tourism Amidst Tribal Traditions, from Tropical Conservation Newsbureau

Resolutions of the Continental Indigenous Coordinating Commission on 500 Years of Indian Resistance at the The all-Indian Continental Meeting

I hope you'll try making a mola - if you find any sites with molas that I've missed, please let me know. 


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Susan Druding