A Guna woman displays the molas she is willing to sell from her home on the San Blas Islands, off the Atlantic Coast of Panama.
Molas are the colorful cloth panels worn as part of everyday dress by Guna women. (“Guna” is the spelling preferred by the people; English spellings have included “Kuna” and “Cuna”.)
Guna girls start making molas when seven or eight years old. They practice sewing simple molas until they can make the tiny stitches and can see the design effects of using different colors and different layers, made by cutting back through the layers, as well as appliqueing onto the top layer.
Before she can marry, each girl must make thirteen pair of molas. An accomplished seamstress will take two to three weeks to finish each – along with her other daily tasks. She usually works on several molas at a time, in various stages of completion.
Originally, the Guna painted or tattooed their bodies with various designs. When cloth became available in the 1700s, the Guna began sewing their clothing. For a while, the Guna traded coconuts with Japanese sailor merchants for fabric.
The first Guna garment was made mostly of undyed material. It went down to mid-thigh and was finished along the bottome with a narrow band of colored material and sea shells. Over time, the band became wider and more colorful, until it filled the whole midsection of the shirt in the form of front and back panels.
Usually, the two panels are made as a set and are a pretty close match. But sometimes a Guna woman will have some fun. For example, she may make a front panel showing a colorful fish, then let the back show the skeletal remains of an eaten fish!
The mola designs are primarily from nature: birds and animals are the most common depictions. Tribal life, religious themes – both native and Christian – as well as political commentary, sports, and modern items and activities are also wonderfully depicted by skilled Guna women.
Here are some samples from my collection (click to see larger images):