Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Molas are sold on the street from the Kuna tribes of Panama
What is a mola?  So many people have asked me that question over the years during my teaching career.  I'd reply that they were from Panama.  Other than that I didn't know much more than that basic information.  This summer I was finally able to get the specific answers that I needed on this unique cloth created by the Kuna tribe of the San Blas islands.  Depending on the design, a mola may sell for 15, 20, or 25 dollars.  The less intricate the design; the less you'll pay.  Panama is very interesting in that many of the indigenous peoples have learned how to retain their cultural values while adapting to the ways of the modern world.  We saw Embera, Kuna, and Ngöbe(Ny-oh-be) walking around the streets.  No one seemed to notice and I found that refreshing.  The Embera stuck to their communities in the rain forest more, but the Kuna and Ngöbe people were everywhere.  I've said it before and I'll say it again....diversity is a good thing!  Just a side note....don't snap pics of people without their permission first:) I only bring this up because I saw people doing it and then the reactions people were giving them.  It's kind of a photography taboo that is full of controversy. It's difficult for photographers because when a moment presents itself, you never hesitate getting that shot.  But when it comes to people, always think twice. Imagine if random people came up to you and snapped pics.  Actually, I'd probably react two ways.....I'd laugh or be suspicious.  Why does the US government want me? LOL!  I have an active imagination.   Back to the molas:)
Molas are cool...but molas with cats are better!!  This mola is now placed above the dresser where our cats sleep at night.  It is now officially the kitty shrine.

From my interviews with several of the very polite and soft spoken Kuna at Casco Viejo and in Boquete, I discovered that this was a family process.  Women generally make the designs with family members helping out.  The young man that I purchased my kitty mola from also helped create some of the designs.  However, I got the impression that he travelled Panama selling his family molas.  He was very proud of his mother's work.  A sister also helped her sew and stitch the designs.....but always with the close eye of his mother. Molas are interesting as they require a difficult fabric layering technique that requires imagination, patience and extraordinary stitching skills. Mola designs reflect the natural environment of the Kuna, including animals, local vegetation and the shapes of Caribbean coral reefs. So it was very lucky on my part when I discovered one with a kitty design. Who knew kitties were so important to the Caribbean?  I did:)  A complicated mola can take up to 5 weeks to create! A lot of stitch work is involved to create just one design.  By the time a piece is finished, there could be thousands of hand stitches. Whether I am in France, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, or Italy, I ALWAYS purchase fabric designs for gifts, my home, or classroom.  It's easy to carry or ship home.  Fabric goes well over furniture, the bed, on walls (framed or not), or as an accent to an appliance.  One last piece of information on this amazing art form.  Molas are created for Kuna women's blouses. When new molas are created, they unstitch the older pieces from their clothes and add the new molas to their outfit.  The older pieces are sold to the public. Who knew? Lastly, the Kuna women decide how much they will charge for each mola.  The mola that has an original creative design will go for a lot more money.  My Kuna friend also explained that the money he makes from his family molas go back to their community.  He originated from the San Blas Islands where the Kuna Yala tribe resides. More tomorrow from the amazing country of Panama......


  1. Very cool, and great story behind them. Kinda reminds me of the Hmong whispering cloths.


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