In the second mini episode of the season, Isabella discusses molas made by the Kuna, an indigenous people in Panama and Colombia. Molas are reverse appliquéd textiles central to Kuna women's clothing and the region's tourist industry.
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Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to episode 5 of season 3 of Sew What? hosted by me, Isabella Rosner. Is my voice haunting your dreams by this point, more than 50 episodes into the pod? Probably! This episode is the second mini episode of the season and for those you who don’t know or remember, these mini episodes focus on indigenous needlework techniques around the world. The last mini episode was about Europe and I talked about Eastern European folk dress traditions and this one is about the Americas, specifically molas, the reverse appliqued textiles of the Kuna, an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. It was actually a Sew What? listener named Alice who recommended I talk about Kuna molas, so thank you, Alice!
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Okay, now let’s get into Kuna needlework! But first, some context. I’m assuming most listeners are not familiar with the Kuna people. I wasn’t either. But now I am and I’m grateful for that! Kuna is actually spelled “Guna,” with a G, after an orthographic reform in 2010, but my research has found that English speakers usually use a “K” sound because we cannot pronounce Guna correctly, so I’ll be saying “Kuna” for the rest of the episode.
The Kuna are an indigenous group about 50,000 people strong. The majority live in three politically autonomous reservations in Panama, in a few small villages In Colombia, and in various cities across the region. Most of the Kuna population live in Guna Yala, also known as the San Blas islands, in northeast Panama. When the Spanish conquistadores invaded, the Kuna people were living in what is now northern Colombia and the Darien Province of Panama. They later moved westward toward Guna Yala because of conflicts with the Spanish and other indigenous groups. The economy of Guna Yala is based on agriculture, fishing, and the manufacture of clothing and textiles with a long tradition of international trade. It is that clothing/textile situation that we are here for today.
The textile in question is the mola. Molas, which form part of traditional Kuna women’s clothing, are internationally known and are held in museum collections around the world. They are brightly coloured and feature geometric designs rendered using applique and reverse applique. They are visual treats! They were and still are created in pairs to create the front and back panels of a blouse, so they are a central building block of Kuna women’s garments. This is how our mola journey will go: we’ll start with the history, then we’ll talk about their meaning and use, and then we’ll get into the technique and construction. Cool? Cool.
Alright, let’s get into the history of molas. According to Kuna legend, molas were created at the beginning of time by their ancient ancestors and hidden away in a kalu, an underworld fortress, called Tuipis. Tuipis is considered the origin place of all things related to women. Despite their mythical origins, the materials used to make molas, like cloth, thread, scissors, and needles, were only brought to the region by European missionaries and tradespeople in the eighteenth century. Michel Perrin, in a 1999 book called Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians, states that even though it is not known when the technique used to make molas was first used, it seems to have originated in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Kuna women didn’t wear any garments on their upper bodies until the region was victim to imperialism. Traditionally, Kuna women wore only skirts and decorated their upper bodies with painted geometric and organic designs. It’s likely those designs that inspired the designs seen in molas. When Christian missionaries came to this part of the Americas in the sixteenth century, they required women to wear blouses. It seems clear that molas are the intersection of traditional Kuna body painting/tattooing and limitations placed upon them by their Spanish colonisers. Oof! Very oof!!
Also oof is what happened in 1919. In that year, the president of Panama, Belisario Porras, began a policy of forced assimilation and banned Kuna women from wearing molas and having their noses pierces. This was done in an attempt to westernise the population and to assert control. Which, again, OOF. Yikes yikes yikes. That was and is a bad time but it does show how important molas were to the Kuna people, as the banning of this traditional dress was a factor in the Kuna Revolution in 1925. According to a 2021 article about molas in Selvedge magazine, after the revolution “the mola transcended its role as a garment to serve as a visual embodiment of the strength and survival of Kuna identity.”
Mola making is a women’s art which is taught to girls when they’re quite young. When exactly a girl is taught to make molas changes from island to island in the Guna Yala region. Some molas have specific purposes, worn for housework, as nightgowns, for going out, or for special occasions. Molas are also very popular souvenirs in Panama and Colombia. So popular, in fact, that their sale nearly rivals the sale of coconuts and crayfish, which are the two primary exports of that region. In this souvenir form, they are just panels rather than sewn into full garments. And what are traditional Kuna women’s garments, you may ask? Well, the traditional costume of a Kuna woman consists of a patterned, blue cotton wrapped skirt, a red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beads, gold nose rings and earrings, and a many layered and finely sewed mola panel blouse. This blouse involves two mola panels, a yoke, and arms.
As I mentioned earlier, the mola serves as a symbol of the synthesis of traditional Kuna culture and the modern, westernised world. I said that mola art really developed and grew when the Kuna population had access to store bought haberdashery, but what I did not say is that mola designs are often inspired by modern graphics and visual culture. These images include things like Felix the Cat, Batman, names of sports teams, and logos. There it is, the power of visual culture and of consumer culture! Fascinating stuff.
Molas made for the tourist industry and those made for Kuna women are really different in terms of quality. Tourist molas are usually machine sewn and lack the imperfections that indicate that a mola is for use rather than simply display. Molas are made in pairs, consisting of the back and front panels of a blouse. The pair includes two variations on a theme, purposefully meant to complement each other. I love the duality of that, that every mola has its natural soulmate. According to a blog post written by Laura Leaper and published on the blog of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the almost mirror-image designs of mola panels may have cultural significance, as the idea of duality is central to Kuna thought. According to Kuna beliefs, all beings, both animate and inanimate, have an invisible double called a purba. Also, Kuna ritual songs and chants are often recited in pairs and lyrics are sometimes repeated twice in a row.
When it comes to technique and construction, mola making women have followed the same tried and true methods they have followed for more than a century. Molas are reverse applique central. To make one, a woman stitches together between two and seven pieces of fabric of different colours. She then cuts out patterns in the top and middle layers to reveal the underlayers, all of which are different colours. The largest pattern is cut from the top layer and progressively smaller patterns are cut from each subsequent layer, revealing the colours beneath in successive layers. Does that make sense? I hope so. After that, the mola maker folds over and stitches the edges of the patterns. Sometimes those edges are stitched down with matching thread colours, so the stitches are nearly invisible, and at other times contrasting thread is used as a design choice. This cutting away of fabric to reveal a design is called reverse applique. These reverse applique designs include things like stylised figures, animals, plants, mythical imagery, scenes of music performance, dancing, and sports, abstract geometric patterns, and pop culture references, like the ones I mentioned earlier.
There are many factors at play when it comes to the quality of mola construction. The quality of a mola depends on a huge number of factors like the number of layers of fabric, the fineness of stitching, the evenness and width of cutouts, the addition of things like embroidery or zigzag borders, and the general vibe of the design and colour combination. Much to think about! The mola Wikipedia page has a lot of claims about these factors without any citations, but I will share them with you and ask you to take these statements with a large grain of salt, in case it’s completely unfounded information. This is what is written: “Molas vary greatly in quality, and the pricing to buyers varies accordingly. A greater number of layers is generally a sign of higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but examples with four or more layers will demand a better price. The quality of stitching is also a factor, with the stitching on the best molas being close to invisible. Although some molas rely on embroidery to some degree to enhance the design, those which are made using only the pure reverse-appliqué technique (or nearly so) are considered better.” I truly do not know if any of these statements are actually true but if you happen to know, please tell me.
What I don’t know if I’ve made clear in this episode is how popular molas are amongst textile collectors and how many there are in museum collections. There are a lot, indicated by the fact that there have been quite a few exhibitions focused on just molas in major museums in the last decade. In 2010 and 11, the Textile Museum of Canada displayed “Drawing with Scissors: Molas from Kuna Yala,” and in 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art displayed them in an exhibition called Stitching Worlds: Mola Art of the Kuna. There is an exhibition about molas currently on, running until January 2022, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s called “Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panama.” So yes, as you see, molas are a favourite when it comes to textiles on display in museums! They are the perfect crowd pleasures – bright, vibrant, bold, and unlike most other textiles. Aaaand they are representations of the power of dress, of a group of people rallying to make textiles to symbolise their independence. The promotional text accompanying the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition summarises the power of the mola well: “The mola is a key component of traditional dress among the Indigenous Guna (formerly Kuna) women of Panamá. Guna women have been sewing mola blouses since the turn of the 20th century, and they have become powerful symbols of their culture and identity. During the Guna Revolution of 1925, Guna people rallied around their right to make and wear molas as a statement of their independence. They ultimately gained sovereignty over their territory, an archipelago of hundreds of small islands along Panamá’s Atlantic coast, known collectively as Gunayala.
Molas are masterfully hand-sewn cotton panels that are made in pairs and sewn into blouses. They feature a wide array of vibrantly colored compositions, with designs ranging from geometric abstraction to imaginative scenes inspired by popular Western culture. Strong expressions of duality, repetition, and equilibrium are evident in mola imagery, both in single panels and those comprising the front and back of a blouse. Driven by precise aesthetic values and a spirited practice of artistic critique, Guna women are passionate about making ever more innovative mola designs that continue to push the boundaries of their cultural tradition.”
I think that text is a good way to summarise this episode, too. Not only does the current Cleveland show make clear just how popular and important molas are today at this very moment, it illustrates the role of molas as vehicles of personal and community identity, paradigms of women’s art production, and symbols of the blending of tradition and modernity.
Also, something that I haven’t seen written about in anything I’ve read about molas but that I want to bring up is many layered nature of the mola. The reverse applique method makes what is typically hidden visible, makes the interior part of the exterior. As I read about making molas, I kept thinking about this cutting of layers to reveal what’s underneath and I thought of that not only as a way to see inside a person, but to see Kuna traditions within a colonial frame. I envision it as Kuna women using the haberdashery first brought to the region by Spanish colonisers as a foundation that is then cut away to reveal what’s underneath, the Kuna tradition of body painting and tattooing. With each piece that’s cut out, more layers are revealed and we move closer to the past, to how Kuna women adorned themselves before Christian missionaries made them cover up. I don’t know if that’s how you see it, but that’s how I view this reverse applique and this subtractive rather than additive textile art. Even though molas are a pretty modern textile tradition, the method of their making feels like going back in time.
So yeah, those are my thoughts. I hope that now that you have molas on the mind, you’ll see them left, right, and centre in museums wherever in the world you are. I hope that you’ll explore the art of more than a century of Kuna women who have cut and stitched and crafted this vibrant, singular art form and who wear their work on their chest, close to their heart. What a cool, powerful thing that is. I hope you think so too! Thanks for listening.
Now go out and stitch some stories and buy a mola so that mola sales can surpass Panamanian and Colombian coconut and crayfish sales. Bye!