What Is Mola Art?

Molas are handstiched with colorful thread.
thread image by studio vision1 from Fotolia.com

Molas are textile art created by the Kuna Indians in Panama. The Kuna women learn to make molas from the time they are children, and save them until they are of age to marry. Amazingly, many molas are sewn at night by the light of a kerosene lamp, as most Kuna Indians do not have electricity. Collectors are delighted by the intricacy and colors of the molas, which has created a market for them.


Molas are rectangular in shape, and consist of layers of brightly colored cotton cloth. Using a reverse applique process, designs are cut in the layers, allowing multiple underlying layers to show through. Molas are handstitched--machine stitching is usually a sign of an inauthentic mola, unless it was made in the 1970s, when the Peace Corps brought sewing machines to the San Blas Islands.


Molas have been made by the Kuna Indians in Panama's San Blas Islands since the second half of the 19th century. In the early 1900s, missionaries and government officials attempted to ban molas and other forms of traditional dress. This led to a revolt and the subsequent autonomy of the Kuna Indians.


Molas have three functions in Kuna society. The primary function is cultural expression. The Kunas use motifs based on storytelling and surrounding fauna to create the molas. Recently, motifs from popular culture, such as logos, have made their way into the designs. Another function of the mola is clothing. Women wear traditional blouses with one mola sewn to the front and another sewn to the back. Molas also serve as a source of income from tourists, with some women selling molas from their old shirts, while others create molas specifically for the tourist trade.


The quality of a mola can be determined by the number of layers in the work, the use of color and design, the size of the stitching and general workmanship. Collectors prefer to buy molas that originated as part of a traditional blouse, rather than those made specifically for the tourist industry, which suggests that molas made for traditional dress may be of higher quality.


The price of a mola depends on where you buy it. If you go directly to the source, you may be able to buy a mola for as little as $10. Some molas will cost more, depending on the intricacy of the design and the size of the work. It is not unusual to pay $50 or $100 for a mola. You can buy molas from resellers at galleries and online. You will pay a higher price than if you bought it from the artist, but it will likely not be prohibitive. Exercise caution when buying molas online, as it is virtually impossible to inspect the quality of the needlework and fabric by viewing a photo on your monitor.