Molas are intricate geometric designs made of fabric that are worn on the front and back of the blouses of the Kuna Indian women of Panama.
Molas have their origin in body painting and only after the colonization by the Spanish missionaries did the Kuna women begin to incorporate their mola designs into fabric bought to Panama from Europe.
These brightly colored reverse appliqués use two or more layers of cloth and cut through the top layer to reveal the color underneath. The designs and patterns used are unique to the maker and include both traditional and modern elements. These designs may have their inspiration in abstract geometric designs, themes related to animals or plants, popular culture, or Kuna legends.
There are many molas for sale in the Bocas street stands and gift shops. Some are just panels suitable for taking home and framing or making into pillows. Others are made into clothing or handbags. A really nice advantage to buying fabric art souvenirs is that they are easy to pack and do not add additional weight to your luggage for the trip home.
Molas vary greatly in quality and price. Those with more layers of fabric are generally considered a higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but those with four or more layers are the most sought after. The stitching on the best molas is close to invisible. Although some rely on embroidery to enhance the design, those molas made using only the pure reverse-appliqué technique are considered to be of a better quality. A mola can take from two weeks to six months to complete, varying with the complexity of the design.
Many of the mola prices are quite reasonable starting at around $15 for the smaller and $40 for larger and more complicated and if you are buying more than one you will be able to negotiate a lower price.
All the molas are beautiful and ones with complex patterns and intricate sewing with many layers of fabric are truly collector’s items.
If you are buying a mola to wear, carry as a handbag or make into a pillow you will be pleased to know most can be washed with delicate fabrics.