Molas and the Traditional Identity of the Kuna Indians

In a group of islands called the San Blas along the Atlantic side of Panama, you will step into a world that is relatively untouched by time and technology.  These islands are home to an indigenous tribe of people known as the Kuna Indians.  For the last 100 years, the Kuna Indians have kept to their traditional ways and have been successful at keeping out outsiders from bringing in the latest technology as well as medicines.  The one thing that has been allowed to escape the islands is the mola.  The mola is an intricately designed panel of fabric that the women sew to their blouses.  It is also a highly desired and sought after piece of art that has tourists continually flocking to the San Blas islands.

A mola is a picture depicting animals or a scene of daily life experienced by the Kuna people.  Only the women of the tribe make and wear molas as part of their clothing.  The designs of the mola are made by taking different colors of cloth and layering them on top of each other while cutting out designs into each layer that will show through.  The most basic molas are made with two layers of cloth and the more intricate molas will have up to six or more layers.  The layers are carefully stitched together and the finished design has colors of each layer showing through.  This technique is known as the Kuna reverse applique method.  All molas are hand sewn and can take months or longer to complete.

The history of the mola is actually relatively short.  The Kuna Indians originally did not wear clothing over their upper body when they were first sighted by explorers such as Columbus in 1501.  Instead, Kuna women created patterns on their bodies with dyes from plants.  These patterns were intricate and detailed and were the basis of how mola designs would look in the centuries to follow.  Kuna women began creating designs for their clothing as other foreign travelers would give them scraps of cloth.  These scraps were usually brightly colored and were favored by the Kuna. 

It was not until the late nineteenth century that the Kuna would have access to sewing materials such as needles and thread.  Obtained from travelers of that time period, these new sewing materials would be the start of the mola that is familiar today.  Continued visits from outsiders would also help the mola evolve from a more primative design and method of stitching to the elaborate needle work made with two or more layers of cloth. 

In 1938, tourists were allowed to visit the islands thus starting the tourist industry and the subsequent demand for molas from the Kuna people.  Today, molas make up a large part of the Kuna’s income and many women work on molas at any chance they get.  The designs of the molas can be categorized in two ways, commercial and traditional.  The molas made for tourists are called commercial as they will be much more elaborately designed and will depict images that are not traditional designs.  The traditional molas are what the Kuna women would normally wear and are made with simpler designs that are usually geometric or traditional Kuna daily life images. 

The Kuna and the molas that they produce are two of the world’s greatest treasures.  Thanks to their desire to keep their ancient traditions alive in a world where modern conveniences spread like wild fire, the rest of the world can enjoy their beautiful molas as well as get a glimpse into a world with little modernization.