Textiles of the World: Molas

Cheers, Sewcialists!

This is a post written as part of the series “Textiles of the World”, which aims to explore some of the history and stories of the Textiles of the World so we can learn together more about them and increase our appreciation for the places and the hands they come from. 

Today, I want to share with you about molas

This story started with a handbag I was given a while ago by my uncle who lived in Colombia. The front flap of the handbag was decorated with a very colorful handmade textile. For several years, this handbag was hidden in the corner of my closet not serving much of a purpose, until one day I finally decided I was going to take it out and make it mine. So, as a natural explorer, I started cutting it apart to make it into a hat. The textile construction was very interesting: layers and layers of colour stacked in an apparently seamless way. Its construction was so interesting that I decided I wanted to learn more about it. Once I learned a little, I wanted to learn more, and then curiosity took over and I wanted to explore all the textiles I have and that I have for many years worn or treasured from my country, Mexico. This is how this story and this series started. If you want to contribute to our community knowledge about Textiles of the World with your story, please read this post. 

Historical exploration

Molas are pieces of art. They are handmade unique pieces that represent the deepest expression of the spirit of the person who makes them, even when for the most part the artist remains anonymous. They are created to produce beauty in our surroundings and to represent the identity of the Guna people (in the language itself spelled Kuna). 

“Our village is called Gunadule. Kuna, Cuna and Tule are incorrect, but well known, ways of writing our name. It is important to change this writing because in the words we must perceive the smell of what we are. Each sound is a fabric of diverse colors that mix to narrate the rich heritage of our ancestors. Gunadule has two parts: guna, which means surface of the earth, and dule, which means person. Therefore, gunadule is a person who lives on the surface of the earth. – 

Manibinigdiginya-Abadio Green Stocel – [1]

An older Gunadule woman wearing a red cloth that has yellow designs over her head, beaded necklaces, and a colorful blouse featuring a mola on the bodice. She has a septum piercing with a gold ring.
Kuna woman wearing traditional clothing, by Eric Lafforgue.

Molas form part of the traditional textiles of the Gunadule. The Gunadule are an indigenous community originary from Guna Yala, the San Blas Archipelago off Panama’s eastern coast that contains more than 300 islands, 49 of which were inhabited by 2018, and who have also extended to live in Urabá and the Darien in Colombia, Central America. Gunadules speak Dulegaya, which literally means “people-mouth“.

Molas are worn daily by the the women that make them at every moment. They are the centerpieces of an impressive array of  brightly colored patterns that express their dreams, religious beliefs, and traditions. Molas are their identity, their “gunaïté”. 

“Molas have been among the Gunadules since the beginning of time. Legend has it that their designs and technique to make them were stored in the galus, sacred places that exist in the different layers of the universe. Many neles, spiritual leaders of the gunadules, tried to travel to the galus, but the scissors specialists, very beautiful women who protected them, did not allow entry. Only Nagegiryai, a nele woman, was allowed to enter. She traveled first to the galu SabbiMolanalamaggale where she saw changing designs like the clouds in the sky. One and the other time, she went back and forth so that she could paint what she saw on the trees and the bodies of young women. In another trip, she arrived at galu Dugbis where she learned the writing of the molas. Sitting on her hammock and combing her hair long and smooth, Nagegiryai taught with her songs this writing to gunadule women. –  [1]

There is a huge variety of drawings in the molas, but they can be divided into two main sets of designs: the naga molas, protective molas composed of 13 abstract designs of the elements of nature, and the goaniggadi molas, figurative designs that show activities of daily life. Naga molas when worn by gunadule women are thought to provide them protection (from illness, kidnapping, rape, etc…), because in this group, women are honoured. They are the source of fertility, the rulers and the guardians of tradition.  

Two molas. The left one is green fabric with orange maze-like lines and the right one is grey fabric with red diamond and triangular shapes.
Naga Molas, Molas Exhibition: Layers of Wisdom  Museo del Oro– Banco de la República, Bogota, Colombia. 2017

Gunadules have been making their artwork for over centuries. They were originally a nomad tribe, and instead of making big pieces of art that would be too heavy to transport, women decorated their bodies by painting themselves with geometric patterns of color. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Gunadules had access to fabric and they started to transfer their motifs onto textiles. 

The full ensemble of the Guna woman includes: 

  • The red scarf printed with yellow drawings, muswe, which the Kuna woman ties on her head.
  • The mola blouse, dulemor, which features a front panel of mola embroidered art, generally made out of cotton.
  • A wrapped panel of patterned blue or dark green printed with geometric patterns fabric worn as a skirt, saburet. Depending on age or taste, it will be worn in maxi or miniskirt.
  • Arms and legs ornaments, wini, made up of small beads threaded on a thread of cotton and arranged in such a way that a geometric design will  show once placed on the forearm or calf. 
  • Traditionally, the bridge of the nose is decorated with a fine line traced with jagua, a forest plant that paints the skin. This line outlines the beauty of the nose and showcases the symmetry of their face.
  • The tip of the nose is adorned with a gold septum ring, olasu, in a ceremony named  ico-inna, which marks the beginning of puberty, the beginning of the menstrual period. Gunadule women wear this gold hoop in their nose for the rest of their life to symbolize women as a treasure.
  • Other gold and plastic jewelry, earrings, and necklaces are very popular amongst women. 

A partial view of a Gunadule woman's lower half of her body. She is sitting in a plastic chair on a beach with her legs crossed. She is working on a colorful mola piece, with outlined shapes of aquatic animals.
Les îles San Blas au Panama, 50 photos (3ème partie), by Michel-Lecumberry

The art of making a mola 

The mola is often made out of cotton rectangles of about 30 x 40 cm. Its main characteristic is the stacking of 3 to 7 layers of fabric. By stacking 2 to 4 different color layers and “opening” windows into the upper layer/s, the lower layers are exposed, thus discovering the underlying colors of each of the layers.

Starting out with a single piece of fabric, a design is drawn with a pencil. Then 1-3 extra layers of fabric are stacked below and are basted following the pattern of the design. Using the back baste – reverse applique technique, the shapes are cut, turned and stitched from the top layers onto the layers below to reveal the colors in the lower layers. Additional smaller pieces of fabric may be sewn in between the different layers to add extra colors and details. Another way to add more interest to a piece is by overlaying a smaller 3 to 4 layer appliqued piece on top of the original piece. This latter process is done with the needle-turn technique, because the new piece is stitched in place and the needle helps turn the seam allowance under the design as it’s sewn. Finally, embroidery details are sewn for additional embellishment. 

It can take a woman five to seven days to make a mola. The quality of the stitches is a source of prestige and recognition among women. Short, regular, and precise stitches indicate that the stitcher is a master of great ability.

The making of a mola is an art with a strong symbolic content. Each step of opening a layer of fabric to reveal the color below has a meaning. It symbolizes the Guna philosophy that sees the world in successive layers, the most essential values are hidden in the deepest layers.  In order to develop their ability to dig deep into their universe and discover and understand their values, Guna women make molas using their skills in color, graphic design, and plastic arts.

Below, I’m sharing a video (with subtitles) of a Guna woman, speaking Ibgigundiwala, her native tongue, taking us through the process of making a mola. 

If you want to learn more about the techniques used, you can refer to: Needle Turn Applique for Beginners by WonderFil Threads–

also, Learn to Back-Baste Using Reverse Applique by Quilting Daily.


Guna people are extraordinary in many ways. 

They, as other indigenous communities in South America, resisted being “westernized” by the government, generating a revolution to fight for independence during the San Blas Rebellion in 1925; this revolution culminated with the Panamanian government giving the Gunas the right to govern their own territory autonomously. Since then, Kuna Yala has been proclaimed an autonomous indigenous territory. 

They are largely thought to be a matriarchal society and embrace gender fluidity. To read more about this, read Guna Yala, the islands where women make the rules

There is also a high incidence rate of albinism. They are believed to have the specific duty of defending the moon against a dragon who tries to devour it during lunar eclipses, and only they are allowed to go outside on the night of a lunar eclipse and to use specially made bows and arrows to shoot down the dragon. They were the only ones allowed to be out on nights of lunar eclipses. They became known as The Children of the Moon or sipu.

Learning about this culture and the process of making molas really invited me to have a greater appreciation for the amount of work, spirit, and time that goes into this art. Looking at collection pieces, I was able to admire  designs of incredible complexity. Admirable!  I might have also felt a little incited to want to try. Maybe one day. 

I invite you to participate in this series if you have the time and the interest. I truly enjoyed learning about the history and stories behind molas. 

Have you seen similar sewing techniques in textiles from other countries?

References:

[1] Molas Exhibition: Layers of Wisdom  Museo del Oro– Banco de la República, Bogota, Colombia. 2017

[2] Catherine Legrand, Textiles et vêtements du monde : Carnet de voyage d’une styliste, France, Ed Minerva, (2007).

[3]  Béatrice Rodaro Vico, Fidel Durana, Applique les molas, France

 Ed : Le Temps apprivoisé (Dec 1 2006).

Monserratt currently lives in Montreal, where she experiments, learns, and shares all things sewing. If you are looking to learn more about her, you can read her latest interview here.


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