Artisan Treasures: The Colorful Panamanian Molas

Have you ever seen the beautiful and layered artwork of Panamanian molas? Molas are colorful, layered fabric panels worn by one of Panama’s indigenous groups, the Kuna. Their unique designs and traditions behind them will fascinate you! Today, we learn about this interesting part of Panamanian culture!

traditional mola geometric design

A Symbol of the Kuna People

Panama’s Kuna tribe (also known as Guna or Cuna) is one of seven indigenous groups in the country.  The Kuna people live mainly on low-lying Caribbean islands and the narrow strip on the Caribbean coast of Panama and Colombia.  

The traditional costume of the Kuna women includes brightly colored wrap skirts (saburet), red or yellow headscarves (musue), beaded arm or leg coverings (wini) and a gold nose ring (olasu).  It also includes the mola blouse (dulemor).  “Mola” means clothing, and specifically, blouse, in the Kuna language.  Molas are the fabric panels that make up the fronts and backs of women’s blouses.   They’re made from many layers of colored fabric that are cut and stitched to create intricate patterns and designs.

Typical Kuna costume

Molas Designs:  Living History Books

In early designs, molas often had geometric patterns that were used in ancient body painting.  Modern molas may include images of animals, flowers, and other things found in the Kuna environment.  They’re often used as ‘living history books’, showing hidden symbols of medical plants, protective symbols, or legends (see Meaning of Mola symbols if you’d like to learn more!).  A main concept in designing molas is to leave as little ‘unworked’ space as possible, as the Kunas believe that evil spirits can settle in the free spaces.

Fish molas
Animal molas

Proudly Sharing Culture Through Handicrafts

Molas are a traditional artisanal craft but they also contribute to the Kuna livelihood through sales to tourists.  Women who sell molas are often the main source of their households’ income.  To preserve their heritage, they typically don’t sell the molas as blouses, but as patches of fabric to use as wall-hangings, pillows, placemats, or bedspreads.

Traditional molas are also highly sought after by collectors.  Some are of such fine quality that they take hundreds of hours to complete!   A mola’s quality is determined by the number of layers of cotton that is used, the level of detail, and the fineness of the stitching. If a Kuna woman tires of wearing a certain blouse, she can disassemble it and sell the mola to collectors.  Molas are now shown in museums and private collections around the world!  You can follow the Panamanian Museo de la Mola to see more designs and their histories.

Bringing a Touch of Panama Home This Month

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at Spanish Schoolhouse, we love to recognize the many unique cultures within our schools.  Though our Panamanian staff representation may be small, we appreciate learning about this wonderful art form they share with us!  Interested in exploring molas further?  You and your child can create your own molas designs at home!  Here are some steps and some links for further reading!

So, what do you think?