TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Psychedelic Kuna Molas

The Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands make exquisite textiles like the photos I have here, called molas. These panels are used to decorate women's blouses, normally one in the front and one in back. They were originally inspired by traditional motifs from their body art and Kuna legend, but later went on to incorporate images from daily life, including the mass media.

The Kuna are native to the San Blas Islands and now live on the coasts of Panama and Colombia. The women continue to wear mola blouses and being skilled in the craft is honored among them. Mola sales has also become an important source of income for them through tourism and collectors. There are many "factories" that imitate molas and cater only to tourism. My main supplier lived in Panama for 17 years and has a mola addiction.

The technique is exquisite and the color choices are often pretty wild. Molas are made by combining cut-work or reverse appliqué and regular appliqué. Reverse appliqué is the process of cutting into a background fabric to expose that color of fabric, while the best known form of appliqué adds fabric to the top of another piece for contrast. The Kuna use both, cutting back and adding on top. They accent the design with embroidery.

A friend here in Paducah, Christi Bonds, has a mola exhibit in her gallery that showcases Biblical imagery. I had never seen them before and was floored! Gorgeous pieces illustrating both Old Testament and New Testament stories. She has promised a story on them for Fiber Focus, so we will look forward to that! I was fortunate to get my hands on a couple of pieces recently, a nativity and communion, which will be available later today in my Etsy store.

A mola appreciates in value depending on how old it is, if it was used by a Kuna woman, how tiny the stitches are, how many layers of fabric were used for cut-work, and for the overall design of the piece. Similar techniques are used in traditional Hawaiian quilts, by the Sindhi people in Pakistan, by the Hmong in Thailand and around the world. Each culture has translated the technique uniquely and the Kuna are undoubtedly the most psychedelic of them all!


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