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Transcript of Mola
The mola forms part of the traditional costume of a Kuna woman, two mola panels being incorporated as front and back panels in a blouse. The full costume traditionally includes a patterned wrapped skirt, a red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beads, a gold nose ring and earrings in addition to the mola blouse.
What is a Mola?
In the Kuna's native language,
"mola" means "shirt" or "clothing".
The mola originated with the tradition of Kuna women painting their bodies with geometrical designs, using available natural colors; in later years these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panamá.
As an inspiration for their designs, the Kuna first used the geometrical patterns which have been used for body painting before. In the past 50 years, they also started to depict realistic and abstract designs of flowers, sea animals and birds.
Depending on the tradition of each island, Kuna women begin with the crafting of molas as teens, and some even at a much younger age. Women who prefer to dress in western style are in the minority as well as in the communities in Panama City.
How are they made
Molas are handmade using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-coloured cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. This is achieved by using a thread the same color as the layer being sewn, sewing blind stitches, and sewing tiny stitches. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.
What makes a good Mola?
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.
Molas will often be found for sale with signs of use, such as stitch marks around the edges; such imperfections indicate that the mola was made for use, and not simply for sale to tourists. A mola can take from two weeks to six months to make, depending on the complexity of the design.
The mola blouse is an important symbol of Kuna culture.
The Kuna rebellion that led to the legal recognition of Kuna Yala as a semi-independant territory by the government of Panama was initiated when the government tried to prevent Kuna women from wearing their traditional mola costume.
It is assumed that the oldest molas are between 150 and 170 years old.
This closeup of a mola shows the layering of the different colors of cloth, and the fine stitching involved.
The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colors beneath. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, varying the sequence of colors.