By Laney Lightfoot

La Mola is an intricate type of embroidery. La Mola is the traditional costume made and worn by the indigenous Kuna women of Panama. Molas are made with two to seven layers of fabric and cutting away parts of each creates patterns.

The Kuna People

mola6.jpgThe Kuna are the indigenous people of Panama. The people live on the islands of Kuna Yala or the Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.The Kuna people are the largest indigenous group in the country. Settled Kuna in Panama City work as unskilled workers while the people living in traditional communities practice agriculture, fishing and trading. The women begin making molas when they reach puberty or before. Women hold financial power by selling molas and are the main source of family income. The great financial income produced by the selling of molas has led to a matriarchic society. Many women today have become more modernized in their dress. Whereas older women continue to wear traditional clothing including molas. Traditions and dress vary from island to island. Some places embrace Western styles while others maintain traditional dress.

La Mola

La Mola is a type of embroidery created by the Kuna women of Panama. Molas adorn the women's blouses and are a part of their traditional dress. The term also refers to the reverse appliqué panels that the women make. Molas are recognized all around the world as textile folk art. The sewing techniques, styles and use of molas are ever changing and evolving. The idea of molas originated through body painting. The Kuna Indians used to paint geometric patterns on their bodies. After Spanish colonization, the Kunas began transferring these geometric designs onto fabric. Later, the Kunas began using reverse application to create patterns on fabric. While the Kunas first created geometric patterns, they have began making designs including sea creatures, birds and flowers in the past 50 years. Molas provide an important source of income to the Kuna people. In addition, they are a symbol of cultural identity and independence. Molas quickly become worn and faded due to the sun. These are more popular because they are visibly authentically made molas. Molas may be sold in the marketplace when they go out of fashion, become worn, or when a family needs money. The Kuna women also create molas for direct sell. Molas are both popular with tourists and are a very precious art form put into collections. Molas can be seen in museums and private collections of textile art throughout the world.


mola4.jpgThe production of molas is a very intricate and time-consuming process. Production can take a few weeks to six months, depending on the amount of detail included in the design. Molas are handmade with bright colors using a reverse appliqué technique. First, two to seven layers of different colored cloth are sewn together. Molas are very difficult to make because blind stitches and tiny stitches are used to sew layers of fabric together. Then, designs and varying color sequences are formed by cutting away parts of each layer of fabric. Simple designs and patterns include animals such as birds and fish. Whereas more difficult designs include geometric patterns. Both types of designs however, include beautiful amounts of color. Today Kuna use traditional designs, personal meaning and inspiration to come up with new patterns. A variety of colors can be seen throughout molas. Dark colors are often used as the top and base colors with bright colors layered in between. The tools used by the Kuna women are, cotton fabric, thread, pencils, scissors, thimbles and needles. The quality of molas is judged by the sewing technique used, the layering and arrangement of the fabric, originality of the design, and the color and contrast of the fabrics. An ideal mola has small sized hand stitching, evenness of cutting and hemming, complexity of layering and equal spacing of design. No large, solid-color spaces should be seen. Open spaces on the fabric should be filled with shapes such as triangles, squares, zig-zags and dots.


mola.jpgThe Kuna culture has always had many influences. The Kuna moved from the highlands of Panama to the lowland jungle during the 16th century due to the influence of indigenous groups and gold-seekers. Epidemics brought by colonial settlers moved the Kuna to the San Blas archipelago in the mid 1800s. Here they settled on small islands near rivers so they were able to return to the mainland daily in order to gather natural resources. In the 17th century, the Kuna were exposed to Spanish Catholic missionaries. Today, Catholic, Mormon and Baptist missionaries work with the Kuna. On some islands, the influence of Christianity has changed the peoples' spiritual beliefs. While some island communities maintain their traditional beliefs. Throughout this history, the Kuna people have developed a strong independence which can be seen through the production and selling of molas.


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