|A History of Molas
Patricia L. Cummings
"Turtles," an example of a Kuna-made mola
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First a note: The Indians who make these molas are referred to, in print, as Kuna Indians, or Cuna Indians. The word "Cuna"
seems to be a more likely way for a Spanish-speaking person to spell the word. Both spellings are interchangeable.
Additionally, the plural of mola is molas, unless you are reading a book printed in Germany, in which case, the plural is
sometimes spelled "Molakana." These issues are mentioned so that the reader will be aware of differences.
What is a Mola?
The answer is simple. Molas are colorful panels that include various types of appliqué and often have added embroidery. Once
assembled, they are placed on both the lower front and lower back of a blouse. These blouses are only part of the daily attire
worn by the Kuna Indian women of Central America. The mola blouses, and mola panels, in and of themselves, have come to
be prized collectibles among textile enthusiasts and museums.
The dress of Kuna women has come to symbolize their “Kunaness,” a term coined by ethnographer Michel Perrin in his book,
Magnificent Molas, (Flammarion). In addition to mola blouses, women wear imported red and yellow head scarves, wrap
around skirts that are often blue in color, gold nose rings and earrings, and rectangular units of decorative beads which
encircle calves and forearms. In addition, a black stripe is painted on the nose and runs the full length of it. This practice is
thought to enhance beauty, and is a reminder of the more extensive body painting practices of former times. Women
sometimes paint their faces with a rouge made from achiote seeds. Mola making itself originated with the Kuna in the second
half of the nineteenth century. The earliest molas collected, that date from the early twentieth century, are held at the
Origins of the Kuna People
The origin of the Kuna people is uncertain. They may be descendants of the Carib Indians of the area. According to Frederick
W. Shaffer, some anthropologists believe the Kuna (Cuna) to have originated in Southeast Asia six thousand years ago.
Chocolate Mola. Photo courtesy of eBay seller "traderbrock"
This chocolate color mola very much resembles a piece of Hmong embroidery in the collection of Sandra Munsey that was
published in my article in The Quilter magazine in the July 2009 issue.
The similarities between the needlework of the two cultures of the Kuna and the Hmong people of Southeast Asia is
remarkable. Both groups of needle workers employ channel appliqué, and their design motifs can have some symbolic
meanings, express cultural identity, and are (now) used to earn income. Both societies have animistic beliefs in which every
living entity and every inanimate objects possesses a spirit. In fact, they have so much in common, these two distinct but
similar types of needlework are sometimes confused by the unknowing.
Like the shamans of the Hmong people, the medicine men of the Kuna Indians employ chants, herbs and rituals to keep the
spirits of the other world in line. In addition, the medicine men use carved uchus which are free-standing, carved figurines in
the shape of men, women and animals. In addition, they grind up pelvic bones "to ensure easy childbirth." The information that
I read was unclear as to what was done with the ground up substance.
Crab mola. Photo courtesy of eBay seller "traderbrock"
Language and Habitat
Known as Kuna by everyone else, these Indians call themselves the tule people. Their language, tulekage, is derived from the
Chibcha group of languages and was in place long before the occupation of the Spanish conquistadores more than 500 years
ago. In addition to occupying some of the 365 islands that form the Mulatas Archipelago, off the coast of Panama, the Kuna
also inhabit rain forest land along a 140 mile stretch of Panama’s coast. Access to Panama’s mainland from the islands is
limited to boat, canoe, or plane. Approximately 1.000 Kuna Indians live in Colombia.
Independence Day Mola features the date of November 3, 1903 when Panama severed ties with Colombia. Photo courtesy of
Abandonment of Traditional Dress Urged
The year 1907 marked the beginning of pressure by outsiders for the Kuna to abandon their visible signs of tradition, and to
become more “civilized.” In 1913, the conflict escalated when Miss Anna Coope, a Protestant missionary, arrived on Narganá
Island. Her insistence that the women not wear their usual attire was a quest taken up by other missionaries.
Soon, government officials intervened and molas were confiscated by police forces kept on the islands. The Indians, who did
not wish to be told how to dress, launched the bloody Tule Rebellion of 1925, during which all the whites present on their
territory were either killed or expelled.
Since that time, the land of the Kuna has been a semi-autonomous territory of Panama. The Kuna are self-governing and their
leaders convene daily in a congreso (meeting) to make decisions. The Kuna call their homeland Kuna Yala which means Kuna
homeland. To the rest of the world, the area where they live is called the San Blas Islands or the Comarca de San Blas. Some
islands have as few as fifty inhabitants while others accommodate more than 1,000 people. Overcrowding is beginning to be
"Molita" = a small mola with less layers and embroidery. These small pieces are made by children just learning to make molas.
A Trip Back in Time
To visit the Kuna is to travel back in time. Surrounded by azure blue waters that cover coral reefs, and with swaying coconut
palms in sight, one might think of this as an island paradise. While men are engaged in fishing or agricultural activities, women
are responsible for the task of collecting fresh water daily from lakes and streams.
Some islands now have irrigation systems in place which result in fresh water being pumped in automatically. Most of the
residents sleep in hammocks inside of thatched-roof houses made of upright canes. The women stitch molas at night by
kerosene lamp. A few islands have a small generator to produce electricity. Molas have become a major source of revenue for
the tourist trade, and so women are busy stitching up new ones in any spare moment.
Colorful Lion molita. Photo courtesy of Len Brockman
In this matriarchal society where all property is passed down through the maternal side of the family, and where money is
handled by women, girls learn to sew molas at six or seven years old. They continue stitching molas for a wedding trousseau
and by the time they are of marriageable age, they have accumulated a dozen or more.
Traditionally, the Kuna forbid marriage outside their group. A xenophobic society ever since the visits of the Spanish
conquistadores who treated them poorly, the Kuna only recently have allowed overnight stays on the islands. If ones does not
mind a “no frills” approach to travel, there are now a few “hotels” on a few of the larger islands. Due to poor economic times,
a number of Kuna men have migrated to the mainland to find wage labor. They always return, though, often within a few
months time. The group known as the Mountain Kuna are an even more reclusive tribe. These Kuna live on the mainland and
are not receptive to outside contact.
Occupations of Kuna Men
Many molas depict crab, lobster, fish and turtles. Fishing is a very strong industry for Kuna men who have found a good
market with mainlanders seafood delights. Agriculture also plays a significant role in the economy. Like the traditional ways of
the Hmong people of Laos, the Kuna use a slash and burn method to clear jungle land on the mainland so that they may create
garden areas to grow avocados, yucca, plantains, and bananas. Until recently, coconuts were grown on all of the uninhabited
islands to sell to traders. Lately, this effort has become less lucrative due to a natural blight on the crop, and to diminished
demand due to economic factors.
Eye-catching geometric mola panel. Collection of Patricia Cummings
Both Men and Women Stitch Molas
One percent of the Kuna population is albino, the highest rate of albinism in the world. Albino men stitch molas as a means of
income, inasmuch as they must stay out of the sun. Reportedly, homosexual men also create molas for sale. Medicine men
(somehow) treat pregnant women with powdered charcoal to prevent albinism. Since this is a genetic trait, the treatment is of
Women usually sell their used or old molas which have been previously sewn into a blouse and may be faded or may have the
usual bottom band still attached. Most collectors do not worry about this factor because it indicates authenticity. Special
molas, reserved for personal use, are never sold. The tourist trade has encouraged many to engage in mola-making. Each mola
panel takes approximately two months to complete.
Mola panels are made in pairs, although they are purposely not exactly alike. The Kuna believe that everything in the universe
comes in pairs, but like man and woman, each is dissimilar. Molas themselves, which possess numerous layers of cloth, seem
to be symbolically representative of the Kuna legends about how the earth was created in various colored layers.
Unfinished reproduction mola that needs more embroidery, constructed by Patricia Cummings
This image is a reproduction in progress, sans all of the additional embroidery that will be added. I made this in order to more
fully understand the process of mola-making. I intentionally included the original maker's "mistakes," just to see if I could. I
started this in 2001 and did not have suitable (shiny) embroidery thread to do the surface embroidery that is included in the
How is a Mola Made?
The panels consist of layers of cotton fabric (usually solid colors). A mola begins life with two or three layers. Often, when
the top layer of the fabric is slit, a small piece of colored cloth can be inserted. The edges on either side of the open space are
turned under (call this reverse appliqué, if you wish), and they are tacked down with small, close, hand stitches. Contrary to
popular belief, not every color seen in a mola represents a full layer of cloth. The channels formed by this type of work form
the overall design shape. With the channel appliqué complete, conventional appliqué motifs and embroidery are very often
added to the top layer.
Over time, the outside shape of molas has changed from a more upright configuration to a rectangular, oblong one. According
to Caren Caraway in The Mola Design Book (Stemmer House, 1981), 16“ x 19” is the average mola size.
Can’t Stop at Just One
The first mola that I had ever seen was a gift from a dear friend. She was moving away and wanted to find a new home for it.
The design of the mola is that of a mythical creature. The piece is nicely framed with a heavy burlap surround and she told me
that it dates from the early twentieth century and was brought back here by missionaries. This piece became the starting point
for a small collection!
Framed Mythological mola, gift of Mrs Faith Wight to Patricia Cummings
I could not resist two mola designs, one of turtles, and one of rabbits, in an antiques shop. Red, black, or orange are the
colors most often selected for the top layer of a mola. Recently, I purchased a child’s mola blouse. Upon receiving it, the first
thing I noticed about the blouse was its fancy fabric used for the yoke and sleeves. The seller explained that charities often
donate fabrics to the Indians and they are quick to experiment and work with any fabric provided.
Mola that features four heads.
Collection of Patricia Cummings;.
Photo by James Cummings
The most unusual mola I have ever seen is one that the seller nicknamed, “Torment, Pity, Anguish, and Anxiety.” It depicts
four black faces. The other molas I purchased on that particular day include one which features the Escudo, the Official
Shield of Panama; a “Patriotic” mola with two Panamanian flags; a mola that says “Felis Navidad” (Merry Christmas spelled
wrong in Spanish; "s" should be a "z."), and “Prospero Año” (prosperous year). In addition, I bought a Blue Toucan mola, and
a Sailfish mola.
Far Reaching Design Sources
The design motifs on the surface of molas are varied and many. The abundant bird life of the islands inspires many abstract
depictions of birds in molas. Turkeys, doves, hawks, and storks are common. In the tropical climate inhabited by the Kuna
Indians, snakes, frogs, and lizards abound and their images find their way onto molas. Butterflies are favored motifs and one
has found his way onto the center of one of my geometric molas. Domestic animals are sometimes seen, and puppies in a
basket seems to be one of the favored design motifs.
Ducks mola. Courtesy of Len Brockman
Company logos are borrowed from magazines left behind by tourists. Any topic is fair game. Common everyday objects such
as arrows, gourds (calabashes), boats, anchors, plates, and jars are used as designs. Official seals, coats of arms, or warriors
find their way onto the surface of some molas, as do Biblical depictions, and portrayals of sporting events, especially
basketball and boxing. Geometric style molas and maze-like designs are considered to have been made at an earlier time and so
are considered to be the most desirable by some collectors.
Celebrities or important people are sometimes the focal point. Among these have been such well-known individuals as Elvis,
and John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline. The Kuna religion is called PAP IKALA and is based on stories that have been
passed down orally through the generations. The effect of missionaries can be seen in the Noah's Ark depictions, and molas
that represent the Creation story, St. Francis of Assisi, and Christ on the Cross.
Highly Collectible Art
In their tropical island environment of origin, molas do not last very long. They are stored by hanging them around the interior
perimeter of the hut and the salty sea air eventually destroys them. For that reason, there are no very old “antique” molas in
existence, that are still located on the islands.
Recently, molas have become highly collectible items for art connoisseurs the world over. Molas can be seen in some of the
finest museums throughout the United States and Europe. The Smithsonian collection includes the thirty mola blouses that
were collected between 1904-1908 by Eleanor Yorke Bell, the first person known to have photographed molas. (These can be
seen online.) A photo of the oldest mola known to exist, one that Eleanor photographed, appears in the book Magnificent
Molas, page 22.
Another early collector, Lady Richmond Brown, bought 200 molas on the islands in 1922. Three-fourths of them are located
in Great Britain’s Museum of Mankind. Museums in Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere in Europe have notable collections.
One very noteworthy collection in New England is located at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Three hundred molas that
were among the many more collected by Elisabeth Hans during her lifetime, were donated to the art department. We were
lucky enough to have seen an outstanding exhibit which featured some of these works.
Catering to the Trade
The initial idea of marketing molas came from a Panamanian business owner in the 1950s. These days, mola making has been
extended to include items found to be popular with tourists. These include potholders, bags, and eyeglass cases and more.
Ever since the desirability of molas has increased and gained stature, there are silk screened tee shirts with mola designs
available in mainland boutiques. ¡Molas! by Kate Mathews (Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1998), introduces examples of very
innovative design uses of the mola technique, rendered in both cloth and paper, by contemporary American artists.
Quilters today are finding new uses for molas. Small molas can be used as decorative patches on clothing. They can be joined
vertically to create a bell pull. At a quilt show in Maine, there was an entire quilt composed of red molas. For such a quilt, one
does not need to add the weight of a heavy batting. Simply add a backing after having sewn the molas together, and place the
ties so that they are visible only from the back.
More often lately, American quilters are enjoying learning the techniques of mola construction. They are also using a mola as a
starting point for making a wearable garment such as a vest, a jacket, the yoke of a dress, or perhaps, even a pocket. Molas
are becoming more and more available in smaller sizes that are adaptable to some of the uses mentioned here.
Mola collecting is fun! Enjoy the hunt!
Mother Bird Feeding her Baby. Photo courtesy of Len Brockman
Many thanks to "traderbrock" on eBay for allowing us to publish some of his photos of molas here. I know from experience
that this man is a friendly, dependable seller of molas, should you ever be in the market. Hundreds of his molas for sale can be
found on eBay. He even has framed molas for sale.
Resources for More Photos and Information
Another article about molas was written by Patricia L. Cummings and published in The Quilter magazine, (NJ: All-American
Crafts, Inc., November 2004).
**Magnificent Molas: The Art of the Kuna Indians by Michel Perrin, (Flammarion). ISBN: 2-09013-674-7.
Mola Art from the San Blas Islands by Capt. Kit S. Kapp (North Bend, OH: K.S. Kapp Publications), 1985. Library of
Mola Techniques for Today’s Quilters by Charlotte Patera (American Quilter’s Society, 1995). ISBN: 0-89145-848-4.
Mola Designs by Frederick W. Shaffer (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1982) ISBN: 0-486-24289-7
¡Molas! Patterns, Techniques, Projects for Colorful Appliqué! by Kate Mathews (Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1998). ISBN: 1-
Molas by Rhoda L. Auld (New York: Van Nostrand and Reinhold Company, 1980). ISBN: 0-442-20050-1.
Dartmouth College's Hood Museum exhibited a small but representative selection of molas in 2008, one well worth viewing!
**8/22/12: Breaking News: Rising waters are forcing the Kuna Indians to move to new dwellings provided for them by the
Panamanian government on the mainland of Panama. Read the full story at this link:
Copyright 2004/2014. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Entire article and photos under
copyright. Do not reproduce images or text without written permission. firstname.lastname@example.org