Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Winner: The Mola

When the Christians first happened upon the Kuna tribe living in what is now Panama, the women were heavily decorated with geometric paintings. Of course, nudity was simply not acceptable and so the women began to wear chemises or blouses. Sounds rather boring except you could say that the women had something up their collective sleeves.

You see,the women began using introduced fabrics to create a reverse applique for decorative panels on their blouses ("molas" in Kuna language).

In reverse applique, all the layers (Kuna women use up to 7 layers of different colors) are sewn together. Then the design is formed by cutting away the pattern through each layer, turning under and hand stitching the raw edge.

Typically, a woman wears two mola panels as part of her blouse - one in front and the other in the back - based on the same theme.

Now, a short digression into history: The Kuna did live in Panama, but with the diseases and social pressure of the invaders, they moved to the San Blas islands off the Panamanian coast. As too often happens, the government tried to force the Kuna to integrate by requiring they wear western clothing and outlawing the molas. This led to Kuna resistance and an uprising.

Today, Kuna Yala (Kuna Land) is a semi-autonomous region of Panama and the molas made by the women are one of the most important cash exports for the Kunas.

Below are examples of traditional and contemporary mola themes.


  1. The work is so colorful and intricate. Looks like it'd be difficult. I wonder how long it takes to make a set of molas. Jane

  2. Several years ago I went on a cruise and stopped at the San Blas Islands to go ashore and shop. I erred and did not buy one of the
    mola shirts which I have always regretted. I made a little photo book on these islands and their inhabitants. The kids were wonderful. JT

  3. Good for the Kunas! It's nice to know that every once in awhile the indigenous people have a measure of real autonomy. JH

  4. Hi Jane,

    I read somewhere that a woman might spend up to 100 hours making a mola. With other things to do, I imagine one mola takes about 3-4 weeks. RA

  5. They're absolutely beautiful. And so detailed, too.
    I wish I had one. Britt

  6. These Molas are absolutely gorgeous.Thanks for bringing them to my attention. MAR

  7. I visited the San Blas Islands in 1975. Got a couple of Mola blouses. The priest on the island spoke English and told us about some of their customs. If a man wants a woman, he sits on her bed so her family will know. Here they sleep with the woman and never tell her parents at all. AH