Mesmerizing Molas

These hypnotic, maze-like textile pieces are called Molas. Popular as both souvenirs and imports, they periodically show up at QBO sales. At first glance, the striking, high-contrast designs appear to be printed, but if you look closely you can see that individual colors are each a separate, hand-sewn piece of cloth. 

Molas are made using a combination of appliqué, reverse appliqué and embroidery. In appliqué, different colored pieces of a design are cut to shape and then sewn down on the background cloth with their raw edges pressed under to prevent fraying. In reverse appliqué, different colors of cloth are stacked on top of each other and thin lines are created by carefully cutting through individual layers with scissors, folding under the raw edges and hand-stitching them down. How many layers are cut through determines which colors show, and even small Molas take careful planning. Due to their handmade nature, each Mola is unique.

Because the multi-layered technique is similar to that used to make Hmong textiles the two can be confused, but the crafts developed independent of each other, one in East & Southeast Asia, the other in Central America. Here, the Hmong work is on the left, a Guna Mola is on the right. Hmong work features abstract symmetrical designs in a limited pallet of blue, black, red and white; the pieces can be large enough to use as bedspreads. Molas are made by the indigenous Guna (or Cuna) women of Panama and Colombia and are worked in intense colors. For the primary top layer the most common are red, orange, or black. The revealed lower layers can include yellows, greens, orange, pink, purple, blue or white. The designs are free-flowing, non-symmetrical or semi-symmetrical and can be abstract or figural. Average size is 18″ x 24″.

In Dulegaya, the Guna language, “Mola” means “clothing” and the word “dulemola” is the women’s blouse that Molas are incorporated into as decorative bodices. Currently, a Guna woman’s traditional outfit consists of a print patterned wrap skirt (saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (musue), and of course a dulemola. Gold earrings, a gold nose ring (olasu), and decorative bands (wini) for both the arms and legs complete the striking look. However, as ‘indigenous’ as this clothing appears, it was created under the influence of Spanish colonizers who arrived in the 1560s. In the warm tropical climates of what later became Panama and Colombia, Guna women wore less clothing and instead painted geometric designs directly on their skin. But with the introduction of both European prudishness and European cotton cloth, these highly personal designs were transformed into wearable textiles, first by painting the fabric and later by appliqué. It is worth noting that this transformation took about a century as most Guna women refused to adopt stuffy, hot, sweaty blouses until the very late 1600s.

Motifs include birds, fish, reptiles and other wildlife, as well as florals, all of which can be seen in these examples. Human related-subjects include domestic animals like horses and chickens, hunting scenes, and utilitarian items such as baskets and gourd scoops, sometimes even other clothing such as hats! Guna spiritual life is referenced with depictions of holy or supernatural entities drawn from their original religion, as well as Christian motifs adopted later. At QBO we most often find Mola panels framed as wall art, made into couch pillows, or left with raw, unfinished edges to be incorporated into craft projects. Whichever version you acquire, take a moment to admire the centuries of indigenous women’s history that went into each one.