How to determine the quality of a mola

Several factors are used to determine the quality of a mola. The points outlined below are not scientific by any means – if there is in fact a scientific way to measure the quality of a mola.  I have come to these conclusions after many years of seeing, handling, buying and collecting molas. I am an artist, so I filter design through a trained and experienced eye. I have also sewn, embroidered, appliquéd, etc. most of my life. So I know a decent stitch when I see one.

First and foremost, to catch my eye, a mola must be well designed. I look at the artisan’s use of color, composition, balance, and subject matter. If these factors have not attracted my attention I don’t even bother to look more closely at the workmanship.

When I do get up close I am looking to see if the stitches are very small and regular (not necessarily invisible – because the appliqué stitches that the Kuna use are not invisible.) The thread should closely match the fabric, (sometimes it doesn’t because they must use what they have at hand.) The edges of the various layers should be very narrow and even. I have rejected many a mola that fit all of my criteria but that contained polyester double knit fabric – or some ghastly fluorescent neon color.

The addition of lattice work, tiny holes and saw tooth edges are very painstaking to execute and add greatly to the value of the mola as well as to it’s beauty. If embroidery embellishment is used it must be very fine and delicate.

On many web sites, and in some books, the mention of the number of layers in the mola is touted as a mark of quality. The color palette was very limited in the early traditional geometric molas, often only one or two subdued colors were used. As the tourist trade started demanding more colorful designs, the Kuna began to incorporate more colors into their molas. It soon became impractical both economically and technically to use a full layer of cloth for each color – so they began to use small patches of fabric only where the color needs to be in the design. I mention this because the number of layers is not necessarily a benchmark for quality, many other factors are of much greater importance.

For those of you who appliqué you know the tinier and more invisible the stitch the better! The Kuna do not see it that way – even in the best examples the stitches are quite visible. Remember the mola is an article of clothing that must withstand years of use on the front and the back of a blouse. Those tiny, delicate, invisible stitches that only catch one or two threads of the fabric would not stand up to the wear and tear a mola is subjected to.

Many, many hours of meticulous cutting and sewing go into the making of a mola. The ability to design and execute a top quality mola is a great source of pride among the Kuna.

Of the hundreds of thousands of molas available in Panama today, of course, not all of them are made by expert needleworkers. Even the “not so fine” molas will always have a ready market – they may end up as a well used pillow at a beach house – or sewn into a tote bag.

This is a very good example of fine latticework. Also notice the extremely even edges on the green and orange layers.

This is a very fine example of a mola that uses the tiny holes technique to great advantage.  It creates a wonderful all over texture. This is one of my favorite molas – it is very unusual – I have never seen anything quite like it.

This is a fantastic example of the sawtooth technique.

This is a beautiful mola that combines all of the difficult techniques.

This monkey on a branch mola is beautifully designed. Notice the yellow strip – it is not an edge peeking out from under the black fabric – it is free floating – much more difficult to sew!

This is a classic design – I have seen many similar ones over the years – almost always in these colors.

I own two of each of the above molas – the front and the back of the blouse. All except the turtle. I found that mola at an annual artisans craft fair. I had bought lots of other molas before I ran across this one just as I was leaving. I didn’t have enough money for both of them and she didn’t accept credit cards. I could have gone to an ATM – and now I regret that I didn’t!

In trying to classify my mola collection I turned to the pearl industry. They use AAA, AA, A and B. Here is my interpretation of those classifications:

Grade AAA: HIGHEST QUALITY
Outstanding design, color, workmanship and inclusion of the difficult design details like saw tooth edges, tiny holes and lattice work.

These are the factors I use to determine the quality of an outstanding mola.

Well designed.
Good use of color.
Pleasing well balanced composition.
Interesting subject matter or beautiful geometric design
Stitches very small and regular .
Thread closely matching the fabric.
Edges of the various layers narrow and even.
Fabric 100% cotton.
Embroidery embellishment, if used, must be very fine and delicate.

The addition of lattice work, tiny holes and saw tooth edges are very painstaking to execute and add greatly to the value of the mola as well as to it’s beauty. The AAA mola will have a large quantity of these details.

All of the molas above are triple A.

Grade AA: HIGH
Excellent design, color, workmanship, but lacking large quantities of the difficult design details.

These are the factors I use to determine the quality of an excellent mola.

Well designed.
Good use of color. No outrageous neon colors.
Pleasing well balanced composition.
Interesting subject matter or well designed geometric design
Stitches small and mostly regular .
Thread closely matching the fabric.
Edges of the various layers usually narrow and even.
Fabric mostly 100% cotton. Certainly no polyester double knit allowed.
Embroidery embellishment, if used, must be very fine and delicate.

The addition of lattice work, tiny holes and saw tooth edges are very painstaking to execute and add greatly to the value of the mola as well as to it’s beauty. An excellent mola will have these features but in a lesser quantity than an Outstanding AAA mola.

Grade A: MEDIUM
A good all around mola lacking in the special difficult design features or a little uneven on the edges or stitches that could have been a bit smaller and more evenly spaced.

These are the factors I use to determine the quality of a good mola.

Well designed.
Good use of color. No outrageous neon colors.
Pleasing well balanced composition.
Interesting subject matter or well designed geometric design
Stitches a bit larger but mostly regular.
Thread a little off matching the fabric. Not another color – just not an exact match.
Edges of the various layers not as narrow and even as on the higher quality molas.
Fabric mostly 100% cotton. May contain some spots of non cotton fabric.
Embroidery embellishment, if used, must be well executed but not necessarily fine.

The addition of lattice work, tiny holes and saw tooth edges are very painstaking to execute and add greatly to the value of the mola as well as to it’s beauty. A good mola may have some of these features, but in a lesser quantity than an Excellent AA mola.

B: ORDINARY
None of the above!

Even the worst quality mola has had many hours of work invested in it – and has a certain folk art charm. I have a quilter friend who does marvelous things with the poor quality molas. She cuts them up into pieces and raw edge appliqués them to quilts, tote bags and anything else that needs a jolt of color and texture.

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5 responses to “How to determine the quality of a mola

  1. Patrick Stephens

    Hi, I was wondering if I sent you a picture of my mola if you could tell me if its worth anything.

  2. My e-mail address is lebalewis@yahoo.com

  3. I have a framed MOLA of 2 cats, it is 40 years old, I understand that on e-bay they are a hot item. I bought it as a gift for my ex-husband who is no longer living, since none of my children are interested as the girls don’t remember much about Panama and my son was born after we left . I am wondering if someone would be interested in acquiring it, not because I don’t like it and it’s wonderful memories but I am 69 years old and when my time comes I don’t want it to be trashed because no-one understands what it is. I live in Columbus, Ohio, anyone living here interested in a re-union. I lived in Panama from 1966 to 1970. Jacqui Gold
    ________________________________________________________

    Hi Jacqui – have you gotten any offers on your mola? Have you thought of selling it on ebay? Or maybe just give it away to someone you know would appreciate it.

  4. I do understand now after spending quite a bit of time on your blog. Nevertheless I could make a small one possibly. After the socks get made.

    I have purchased things on Etsy although I have no idea how it works for sellers. Let me know if you do start selling.

    Meantime I have added you to my blogroll and will be checking regularly. I have loved molas for a long time and you don’t see them around here very often. I am sure the person who threw that one away had no idea.

  5. Now you have me so excited I have just ordered two books on mola designs and how to make them. Like I need more projects. I am just learning to knit socks.
    I looked at your photos on flickr. Your work is spectacular. I think you should consider selling. Or are you like me – can’t bear to part with it?

    I think I will do a mola post on my blog before too long. I will put photos of the two I have. One black and white one we purchased at an antique store years ago. The second, which is quite beautiful although more restrained than most, my husband rescued from the trash around here. What people throw away.

    ______________________________________________________

    Cathy – I am a bit worried that you think I made these molas. I didn’t – many different Kuna Indian women (occasionally men) made them. All I do is incorporate the mola or molita into a project.

    I would love to see photos of your two molas. I cannot believe anybody would throw away a mola – maybe give it away – but to dump it in the trash – how could they!

    All of the molitas in the Flick gallery are sold. I took those pictures when I had a website (with shopping cart) called MolaMolaDesigns.com. I had to close it after about a year because I didn’t make enough sales to warrant keeping it going. I even advertised in several US quilting magazines.

    My sister in law who lives in the US ended up selling most of them for me – she took them to her office several times and they sold like crazy! So I know there is a market for them.

    I think Etsy might be a good idea. And as soon as I build up an inventory I will try it. I am not sure I want to sell my large traditional molas though – at least not my favorites.

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