molas

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   Kuna women wore little clothing before the Spanish invasion.  They did, however, paint their bodies with numerous colors.  When they began covering their breasts, they began expressing their colorful creativity on fabric that formed both the front and back of their blouses.  Those panels are the molas that Kuna women still wear today.

    Molas are a textile handicraft/art practiced by all Kuna women and a few men.  It is a reverse appliqué.  In regular appliqué, designs are created by adding pieces to one base layer of cloth.  Designs are created from the bottom up.  On molas, two to five layers of cloth are stacked on top of one another, and designs are created by cutting away a section and revealing the color beneath.  Designs are created from the top down.

    In addition to the base layers, small pieces of cloth may be slipped in to add another color, and some embroidery is common.  Many molas will also have a small amount of regular appliqué.

    Because molas are designed for women's blouses, they are almost always made in pairs.  The two will not be exact, but they will be similar in design and color.  Most are approximately 14" X 18" in size - some a bit larger and some a bit smaller.

    Until the early 20th century, mola designs were mostly geometrics or nature inspired designs.  However, Americans began arriving to work on building the canal starting in 1904, and designs began to show the effects of acculturation.  Today designs include the contemporary world as well as traditional designs.

    Molas are a substantial source of income for the Kunas.  Prices range from $5 to hundreds of dollars depending on the quality.  Quality is determined by the design, stitching, and overall appeal.

    Although all women and a few men sew molas, a few are known as 'master mola makers'.  We do not know who ascribes that title or what it means, but before coming to Kuna Yala, we saw the work of two masters, and we were impressed.  So we sought out Venancio on Isla Maquina and Lisa on Rio Sidra.  We made contact with Venancio, and we bought too many molas.  We then went to Lisa's island, but we did not make contact with her.  We thought it was just as well because we had already bought too many and spent too much money.  But we were sorry that we did not get to see her work.

    Two days later, while we were anchored at Isla Gunboat about to start heading west, Lisa arrived.  She had seen us at her island two days prior, but she did not have a boat to come out to see us.  So she found us.

    Lisa's work is very different from Venancio's.  The stitching and detail is far less, but her designs are unique and fun.  So we bought a few more.

    We bought three times the number of molas intended, and we spent four times the money budgeted.  But we got some beauties!  Take a look below.

 

 
  This was our first mola.  It is a toucan surrounded by geometric design.  It is three layers with other colors slipped in.  It includes some zig-zag work and embroidery.  This was made by Adelaida from Isla Maquina.

 

 
  This mola was also made by Adelaida from Isla Maquina.  It is a dove surrounded by a lot of detail work and some embroidery.  This is four layers with other colors slipped in.

 

    These are two of three molas that we bought with a purpose.  They will be framed and hang in our living room.  These geometrics are only two layers with numerous color inserts.  These were made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.
   

 

 
  This is the other mola that we bought for a known purpose - to hang in our living room.  These are paddles with a lot of detail work including zig-zags and a small amount of embroidery.  This is three layers with inserts.  It was made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.

 

   
  This is a dog that makes Nita smile every time she looks at it.  The design and colors are both fun and whimsical.  It is a four layer design with color inserts.  Made by Lisa of Rio Sidra.  

 

 
  This is a relatively simple geometric design of two layers with color inserts.  It has zig-zag work and a moderate amount of embroidery.  Made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.

 

    This is a detailed pair that symbolizes whale tails, harpoons, and paddles.  These are made from three layers and numerous inserts.  These have fine detail work including zig-zags and cutouts.  Made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.
     
   

 

 
  This is another geometric made of four layers without inserts.  It has nice detail work.  Made by Venancio of Isla Maquina.

 

    This is a pair of birds made from two layers with color inserts.  The colors in these are very nice.  These have lots of embroidery.  They were made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.
     
   

 

   
  This is a depiction of the mythical story of the origin of molas.  It has something to do with four sisters (center) sent from heaven.  This is a three layer mola made by Lisa of Rio Sidra.  

 

    This pair is parrots and fish made from three layers with colors inserts.  It includes detailed cutouts and embroidery.  Made  by Venancio of Isla Maquina.
     
   

 

   
  This design depicts the medicinal leaves used for skin ailments among the Kuna.  It is a three layer design with color inserts.  Made by Lisa of Rio Sidra.  

 

    These are spectacular pieces that, unfortunately, cannot be appreciated in these pictures.  These are parrots and hummingbirds of incredible detail.  These are four layers with countless inserts.  They have fine detail work including zig-zags, cutouts, and a lot of embroidery,  Made by Venancio on Isla Maquina.  These are very special pieces.
     
   

 

   
  Our most special piece.  This is a depiction of a chicha ritual made from three layers with countless inserts.  This includes very fine detail work including zig-zags, cutouts, and very fine embroidery.  Made by Venancio of Isla Maquina.