The Textile Art of the Kuna Women

Mola blouse, PanamaThe women of the Kuna tribe, in what is today Panama and Columbia, have been holding a secret. They have been making the most amazing and colorful blouses for generations, made with a technique called mola. Being able to make a beautiful and intricate pattern with mola is a key source of pride for the Kuna women. Molas only developed after Spanish colonization, within the past 150 years, when cotton yard cloth became commonly available to the Kuna. The intricately designed and sewn molas are attached to the fronts and backs of women’s blouses, and are considered a major form of artistic expression and ethnic identity. They tend to feature geometric patterns that were originally based on the body painting art of the tribe, but now come from many sources.

This amazing work is known to us westerners as reverse applique. The artist will select several layers of different colored fabric, one of those serving as the foundation layer, and this layer will remain whole and uncut, becoming the background color and support for the stitching of all the other layers. The artist then draws the design onto the top layer and carefully bastes along the line, then she cuts about 1/8” of an inch on both sides of the basted line, before folding under the edge about 1/16″ back from the opening. Next, she sews the folded edge to the base layer using hidden stitches in matching thread and a fine needle; the stitches will be small and evenly spaced. On the sharp points she turns under the fabric into a small space and cuts away the excess of fabric.

Mola sample, PanamaThis is a lengthy process that requires a lot of patience and is very time consuming according to the complexity of the mola.
For molas with more layers, the process is repeated over and over, until the image is finished. Keep in mind that a mola can be made with 2, 3, 4 or more layers of fabric. A great number of layers, small stitches, intricate details, and original design, on each mola, mean higher and better quality. No wonder this is a source of pride for the women.

Commonly, the women remove the molas from their shirts to sell to cultural tourists, in the region. If you are looking to buy an authentic mola, look for wear and tear, as if it has been washed several times. The pieces made just for tourists, in the market, will not have the charm and provenance of the ones the women made for themselves to wear, as a badge of honor.