I have made a series of pillow covers using refreshed vintage molas and put them in my Etsy shop Ravenmade Works.
Molas are the embroidery of the Cuna Indians of Panama. They live on the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic side of Panama.
This well-worn mola (above) is a relatively simple design with strong mirror symmetry, all features of older traditional work.
The back shows the ground fabric has been made from 3 different fabrics pieced together and they have faded at different rates.
The front view of the 3 different red fabrics making up the ground.
Orange then black fabric were layered on top of the red ground then the 3 layers were basted together. Smaller pieces of different coloured fabric were inserted into specific areas according to the design – see the green and white areas above.
The design was drawn or traced onto the top most layer then basted with thread along the design lines. The top layer was cut about 1/8″ on each side of the line before the cut edges were folded under. The folded edges were hand creased then the edges were hand stitched down. It is an embroidery technique known as reverse applique or cut back applique.
The traditional designs evolved from elaborate body painting and reflected things observed in the environment.
This mola has inserts of printed cloth most likely acquired by trade or from visitors to the islands.
‘Mola’ means blouse and they were made in pairs – two identically designed rectangular pieces, one for the front and one for the back of the blouse. The horizontal line denotes the top of the panel, often accentuated with rick rack.
The above mola is more complex in design and detail and has many different inserts suggesting it was made for the tourist market.
The back shows the density of the hand stitching necessary to execute a more complex design.
The purple strip at the top was likely the fabric the mola was attached to to make the yoke of the blouse.
It was very popular in the 60s and 70s for travellers passing through the island archipelago to buy molas. Women would sell their worn blouses and make new ones to wear.
Today most mola production is for the tourist market generating valuable income families have become dependent on. Many contemporary molas are made in a wide variety of sizes, are often simpler, as above, or more complex to get higher prices and are brighter in colour. They are incorporated into clothing and home decor items to add value to the product.
Traditional Mola Blouse worn by a San Blas woman.