Molas: The Art of Appliqué

Off the eastern coast of Panama, a group of island forms the archipelago of San Blas. There, the Kuna people develop Mola, an indigenous textile art inspired by ancient local traditions of body painting.
Kuna textile
With the Christianization and arrival of Spanish missionaries, little by little these motifs were adapted to cotton canvases. The most common use of this technique is for the creation of blouses, still worn today by women of the archipelago, whose front and bank are composed of colorful fabric appliqués.
Produced by hand, the Mola motifs combine up to seven layers of differently-colored fabric superimposed and then cut out in patterns in order to reveal the various layers. The borders are meticulously turned before being sewn and it is the finesse of these seams that determine the quality of the work.
Kuna Woman sewing, photo © Christian Dory
In the history of the country, this blouse has become a symbol of identity and freedom. Across the first half of the twentieth century, for the sake of unity, the government of Panama was tempted to suppress a large part of the traditional ethnic costumes of the Kuna, of which the Mola blouse was a part. One thing led to another and a successful revolt in 1925 finally let to a treaty, thanks to which Panama conceded a degree of cultural and geographic autonomy to the Kuna people.