Layers: The Molas of the San Blas Islands
The Kuna (also spelled Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas Islands
off the coast of Panama much as they have for the past 500 years.
They moved to the islands from mainland Panama in the mid 19th century
in an effort to avoid forced assimilation by the Panamanian government.
Today the Kuna live on their beautiful tropical islands in clusters
of thatched-roof bamboo huts. Because there is no firewood or fresh
water on the islands, the men make frequent trips to the mainland
where they also farm and tend fruit trees. When they are not farming,
the men fish the Caribbean waters, which are rich in spiny lobster,
red snapper, and swordfish. The women generally remain at home to
do household chores and sewing. More often than not, what they are
sewing are molas.
The term mola may be used in a variety of ways. It can
mean “cloth,” “clothing,” or “blouse.”
More recently, the term has come to refer to the stitched panel
itself. Each panel consists of many layers of fabric of different
colors that have been sewn together. Now internationally popular
with collectors and artists, making molas is no longer
a pastime for Kuna women, but an important source of income for
the family. Women sew whenever and wherever possible. Girls begin
to learn the process of making molas when they are four
or five, and by the time they are seven or eight they have begun
to help with the stitching or other simple details.
Before the boom in tourism to the area, most molas were
made for personal use on blouses for a woman or her daughters. Despite
the high quality of construction, mola blouses generally
don’t last long because the fabric deteriorates in the hot
and humid climate of the Kuna homeland. In the 1960s, tourism to
the area increased rapidly, and the sale of molas to visitors
To make a mola, a Kuna woman first draws the design on
a piece of paper. Panels of fabric (usually two or three) are cut
or torn to the desired size and then layered. The design is then
transferred to the top layer of fabric. Traditional molas
are made of primary and other bright colors and from solid—rather
Using a technique known as reverse appliqué, slits are cut
through—or shapes are cut out of—the top layers of the
fabric to allow the remaining layers of cloth below to show through.
Sometimes smaller pieces of fabric are sandwiched between the layers,
a technique known as inlay appliqué. Traditional or overlay
appliqué is also used to apply fabric cutouts on top of the
background. Regardless of the appliqué technique, all of
the layers are sewn with very precise stitches. The Kuna people
often use a unique “waste no fabric” method in which
shapes cut out of one mola panel are applied to a second
panel. The results are two similar, but not identical, molas
that are actually symmetrical, or mirror images of each other.
Next the borders of the fabric are stitched together. In the finest
molas, the stitches are barely visible. Embroidery is sometimes
added for decorative effect or to emphasize design details. A well-made
mola may take up to a hundred hours to complete, usually
spread over a period of four to six weeks.
Kuna women find inspiration for their molas from their
daily lives, as well as the world around them. Designs from the
natural world may include native animals and plants. Sometimes animals
from other parts of the world whose pictures were found in books
or other sources will appear. Scenes from daily life, and Kuna religion
and legends are also popular themes. The forms of transportation
used by the Kuna, as well as those they see the tourists utilizing—cruise
ships, planes, etc.—are occasionally found in molas.
Even popular sports like basketball capture the imaginations of
Molas have become one of the most important products of
the Kuna economy. And partly as a result, their makers—the
Kuna women—enjoy a very high status in their society.
of Cloth by Stevie Mack and Kathleen Williams (2002: CRIZMAC
Art and Cultural Education Materials, Inc.)
Adapted from questionArte
posters by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC
What is the artwork and what is it about?
What materials and processes are used to make molas?
Do molas contain things that stand for something else (symbols)?
Do molas have a message? Convey an idea or theme?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art
in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with
learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as
they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations
about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of
discussing important questions about art. They learn about their
own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through