As you travel throughout Panama, brightly colored panels of fabric can be seen everywhere; on clothes, walls, purses, and hanging in markets. These are known as Molas. Pronounced MO-la, in the Kuna native language, it means ‘blouse’ or ‘clothing’. It is also the word used to describe colorful panels made of cotton fabric and thread created by the Kuna women of Panama. The indigenous people who live on the islands of San Blas.
The cloth panels can be seen attached to the fronts and backs of women's blouses. Together with the patterned wrap cotton skirts, the red and yellow head scarves and the characteristic glass bead strings on wrists and ankles they represent the traditional dress of the Kuna women.
The Mola originated with the tradition of Kuna women painting their bodies with geometrical designs, using available natural colors. Later these same designs were woven in cotton, and then sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panamá. It is assumed that the oldest Molas are between 150 and 170 years old.
Molas are handmade using a reverse applique technique sewing several layers of different color cloth together. The design is formed by cutting away parts of each layer and then the edges are turned and sewn down. The finest Molas have very delicate stitching made with tiny needles. Some can take hundreds of hours to complete. Pricing varies and is reflected by the quality, which is determined by the number of layers and stitching.
Inspiration for the Mola reflects a synthesis of traditional Kuna culture and influences from nature, everyday life, their surroundings, and some designs are abstracts made up of colors, shapes and lines.
Molas have achieved worldwide recognition for outstanding artistry in the last couple of decades and can be found in museums and private collections of textile art around the world.