Category Archives: Molas

Framed molas

In April, Virginia commented on my blog post “How to display a mola.” She told me she was having some old molas re-framed. I asked her to send me photos when they were done -  and she did. Here they are – I think they turned out very well.

molas framed 1

framed molas 2

This one is a more traditional way to frame a mola – everybody here in Panama used to do it this way years ago.

molas framed 3

Portrait of Carmen

This is a photo manipulation done in Photoshop CS2.

My Kuna friends

These are the Kuna women I buy many of my molas from and they are the ones who make the molas that I commission.

This is Carmen de Tejada – she is in cubicle #4 at the Centro de Artesanías Panameñas in Balboa. She is usually there with her husband Samuel who speaks very good Spanish and is a wonderful source of kuna lore and information. I usually end up spending a lot of time talking to him. He would be a good source if I ever decided to write a book about molas.

This is Eladia Herman she is in cubicle # 6. Eladia’s Spanish is pretty rudimentary so I go through Carmen if anything needs to be explained in detail – usually when I am giving them a comission project to sew.

This is Ana Linda Alba, she is Rosa’s sister. Rosa wasn’t there the day I took these pictures. They share the duty of attending to the stall – I never know which one of them will be there when I show up. She is in stall # 5.

Mola blouse

The photos below show the blouse which the kuna women wear – it is called a mola – although the word mola has come to mean the appliquéd panels on the front and back of the blouse.

The fabric the Kuna women use to make the sleeves and bodice is 100% polyester, sometimes shiny satin – and in the most outrageous colors you can imagine. This pink one is quite conservative compared to many I have seen!

I highlighted the sleeves and bodice so you can see how crude the sewing is. And it’s not just this blouse – it seems to be the norm. I wonder how they can spend so much time and effort making the mola panels and then make no effort to sew on the sleeves and bodice properly.

The front of the blouse.

Detail of the bodice.

Detail of the sleeve. Not even a small hem – a ragged raw edge.

Detail of the lower left hand corner. Actually this mess won’t show – the bottom of the mola is tucked into the wrap around skirt – called a saburete.

More about molas

For years I have collected molas – the wonderful reverse appliqué blouses of the Kuna women. I have large storage boxes filled with them – I can’t stop buying the ones that “speak” to me – because of their color – design – and fine needlework. I always have the nagging feeling that some day this beautiful art form will be lost – so I buy another one! Increasingly I see young Kuna girls in jeans and T-shirts – if they are refusing to wear the traditional dress of their people – surely they aren’t learning to make molas.

A mola is actually an article of used clothing! The Kuna woman makes a pair of molas, one for the front of the blouse and another similar or nearly identical one for the back. When she tires of the designs, outgrows the blouse, or maybe she just needs the money, she will take the blouse apart and sell the panels.

Just like our clothing, molas come in many different sizes. A large mola was made by a plump Kuna woman, a smaller one by a slender woman and a tiny one for a child. If a woman gains weight she can easily add a fabric gusset on the sides of her blouse without having to make a new one right away.

Molitas are regular appliqué panels often, but not always, heavily embellished with colorful embroidery. The subject matter is usually birds or sea life, but can be almost anything. They are available in sizes ranging from a few inches square to very large wall hanging size panels. Molitas are very attractive folk art needlework, but they are not real molas.

On flickr I have a gallery of geometric molitas, bird molitas and flower molitas.

Molas are what the Kuna women wear – they never – ever – wear the appliquéd birds and fish panels – they make those only to sell to the tourists. And – as I see it – that is becoming a problem. In the cubicles – where they display their molas for sale – I see the appliqués slowly but surely taking over the traditional mola. I am not sure why – I think maybe they perceive that is what the tourist wants – or maybe it is so much easier and faster to produce. Whatever the reason is – I am on a personal campaign to try and change the trend – or the traditional mola will eventually be lost. We will only be able to buy a genuine mola when the maker gets tired of her blouse and decides to put it up for sale!

I have a larger collection of photos of traditional molas on flickr.

One of my favorite projects was “William Morris Meets the Kunas.” Click on the link and you will see the whole collection on flickr.

For those who don’t know – William Morris was a Victorian artist and a pivotal figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He is famous today for his wonderfully organic wall paper designs using elegant and subtle color combinations.

I have a large collection of William Morris reproduction fabrics and I had the Kuna needle workers stitch a series of traditional geometric designs on a two color panel – 8”x8” – suitable for quilt blocks – throw pillow covers – or any number of other projects. The printed fabric is underneath and the top fabric is a neutral taupe color – both 100% cotton.

The very early molas were only two colors and often the base color was a print – so this isn’t a modern invention of mine – it is really just getting back to basics

Much has been written about the Kuna and thier molas, two excellent books are:

The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama by Marilyn Salvador

Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians by Michel Perrin

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:

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.

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.

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.

A simple sewing project using molas #2

These need quilting and then they will be made into pillow covers. I will probably add a black border.

I hope to have an Etsy shop sometime in the near future – soon as I have enough inventory.

Read about molas and molitas here. Some readers think that I make the molas. Oh – no, no, no – the Kunas make the molas and molitas – I just add the borders.

I often commission the molitas to be the size I need for the project I have in mind. These I bought “off the shelf” so to speak. They weren’t square so I added a black strip of fabric to the top and the bottom – but it looked off balance – so I took the molitas back to Carmen (my favorite Kuna needleworker) and she appliqued on some geometric shapes to fill in the space – much better!

A simple sewing project using a small mola

I probably paid 2 or 3 dollars for this “molita.” The addition of a few strips of fabric and you’ve got yourself a small wall hanging or a pillow cover.

Washing molas

I am writing this in response to somebody who used “washing molas” as a search term and ended up here. My advice is to just chuck it in the washing machine (delicate wash cycle, gentle detergent.) It is an article of clothing – well used at that. And if it is a tourist molita or wall hanging it was made with the very same materials as the traditional molas.

After the spin cycle take it out and stretch it into shape – block it like you would needlework. Iron it on the back while still damp, gently pulling and tugging it to square it up as you iron and it starts to dry. The Kuna don’t have dryers so I wouldn’t put it in the dryer. Heck the Kunas don’t have washing machines either – or electricity to use them if they did!

How to display a mola

So you visited Panama and bought some molas. Now what? They’re very pretty – but what do you do with them?

Well it depends – do you sew? If you do the possibilities are endless. In fact my quilt group is planning on writing a book on the subject. More on that later in the sewing and quilting section.

If you bought a mola and want to display it “as is” and not incorporate it into a sewing or quilting project I can tell you how it is traditionally done here in Panama:

Frame it. Matted or not. If you use a mat a fabric one is really nice – linen or burlap. The frame should be very neutral – whatever the color – nothing carved or fancy.

I have seen them framed in a float frame – no mat – just suspended. It is a very modern look – you can see the uneven edges of the fabric. Not as “decorative” as framing with a mat – more like a museum display – so you can actually see the whole mola.

You could also sew a little sleeve (a tube of fabric) onto the back – insert a dowel and hang it as a small wall hanging – definitely the cheapest. Molas are washable – so if it gets dirty just throw it into the washing machine!

Another very popular way to use a mola is in a tray. If you are good at woodworking (or know someone who is) you can make a tray with a base to fit the mola then cover it with glass.