Global Textiles


Published: October 20, 2020
Author: SaachiBhatia




The Kuna (or Guna) Indians are the indigenous people who live on small coral islands in the San Blas Archipelago along the Atlantic coast of Panama and Colombia. They were driven westward in the 16th century from their original home in Colombia by invading Spanish colonizers and similar migrations of other Indian tribes notably the Wounaan and Embera.  They first moved into the Darien Rainforest, then towards the coastal Mainland of Panama, and by the 19th century they had begun to move out to the islands where they now live in the semi-autonomous region called Yala Guna.



What is the mola?


The mola is a key component of traditional dress among the indigenous Guna (formerly Kuna) women of Panamá. Guna women have been sewing mola blouses since the turn of the 20th century, and they have become powerful symbols of their culture and identity. During the Guna Revolution of 1925, Guna people rallied around their right to make and wear molas as a statement of their independence. They ultimately gained sovereignty over their territory, an archipelago of hundreds of small islands along Panamá’s Atlantic coast, known collectively as Guna Yala.

Molas are masterfully hand-sewn cotton panels that are made in pairs and sewn into blouses. They feature a wide array of vibrantly colored compositions, with designs ranging from geometric abstraction to imaginative scenes inspired by popular Western culture. Strong expressions of duality, repetition, and equilibrium are evident in mola imagery, both in single panels and those comprising the front and back of a blouse. Driven by precise aesthetic values and a spirited practice of artistic critique, Guna women are passionate about making ever more innovative mola designs that continue to push the boundaries of their cultural tradition.


How is the mola made?


Molas are hand-made using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-colored cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. This is achieved by using a thread the same color as the layer being sewn, sewing blind stitches, and sewing tiny stitches. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.

The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colors beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colours; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colours, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations of color.

Molas vary greatly in quality, and the pricing to buyers varies accordingly. A greater number of layers is generally a sign of higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but examples with four or more layers will demand a better price. The quality of stitching is also a factor, with the stitching on the best molas being close to invisible. Although some molas rely on embroidery to some degree to enhance the design, those which are made using only the pure reverse-appliqué technique (or nearly so) are considered better.

Molas will often be found for sale with signs of use, such as stitch marks around the edges; such imperfections indicate that the mola was made for use, and not simply for sale to tourists. A mola can take from two weeks to six months to make, depending on the complexity of the design.


What makes a good traditional mola? 


The principal design should be immediately recognizable.  It should not be confused by additional added elements or colours.  When studied from three to six feet away, the same way one appreciates a painting, the mola should be harmonious in color with a balanced design.  The entire panel should be filled.

Traditional designs are geometric patterns, subjects inspired by nature, animals, fish, flowers, and daily life. The artist will always add her personal touch, and subjects of acculturation can be interesting and sometimes amusing. When presented together or as a blouse, the two mola panels should look very much alike and differ only in small details of design and color. “They should be the same but different,” say the Kuna. 


The stitches should almost be invisible; the thread should be exactly the same color as the fabric and the stitches small and close together.  The curves of the designs should be very smooth and not a series of straight lines.  Once they have been hemmed, all the colored lines that form the design (the cut out edges) should be straight and very even in width (1/8” to 3/32” maximum). The entire surface of the mola should be used, but the filler elements, slits, positive appliqué figures, triangles, rounds, and additional embroidery, should highlight the main subject and not overwhelm it. When laid flat, the mola should not be uneven.  Good quality fabric should be used. A good, traditional mola takes three to five weeks to sew, and sometimes longer for exceptionally fine pieces.


Kuna women are proud of the fineness of their stitches, the exact color match of their thread, the complexity of their design. A woman will spend several hours each day sewing and young girls begin creating “molitas”, little molas, by the time they are six or seven.  Since tourists usually want to buy only the mola panels, the Kuna now also make molas never intended for a blouse.  These “tourist molas” usually have only two layers of cloth with positive appliqué and embroidery.  They are often in vivid colors, frequently portray birds, and take only a few days to sew.  Some, however, are extremely intricate and can include several layers of fabric with reverse appliqué. Some are even large enough to be tapestries or wall hangings.

This traditional mola represents the olasu, a nose ring worn by the Guna women.


This closeup of a mola by Venancio Restrepo shows the layering of the different colors of cloth, and the fine stitching involved.

Apart from the Mola, which forms the most integral part of the Kuna costume, the Kunas also wear the following to complete their traditional attires-




This is the typical head scarf that a Kuna woman wears. The most common muswes have red and yellow designs, though they can also be multicolored. Whether worn on their head or over their shoulders when it gets too hot, it is seen as a sign of respect to have a muswe at all times.






Ico-inna is a very important ritual in a young Kuna girl’s life. Translating into “the needle festival”, this feast is celebrated by the young girl getting her septum pierced. Because gold is precious to the Kuna, she wears a gold hoop in her nose for the rest of her life to symbolize how the female is a treasure.



The beaded wrapping on a Kuna woman’s arms and legs is called uini, but is more commonly referred to as chakira. It is expected of women to wear these beginning the day of their puberty ceremony and continue wearing them as a sign of their culture and tradition. Yards of string are looped through tiny glass beads which then are systematically wrapped and tied around the appendages, making different patterns with various colors.


While the Kuna Yala area is quite small and secluded, the Kuna people have been able to live in their own autonomous region, continue their indigenous culture, and embrace their traditions by sharing them with people from around the world. 






The costumes are an integral part of tamborito and other folk dances of Panama. The attire is reflective of Spanish influences. Women are dressed ornately with several parts to the complete costume. The most important is the pollera, the long embroidered skirt. These polleras can range from $300 to $3,000-polleras have developed into an industry themselves as these highly-crafted dresses are in demand. The polleras are customized to each dancer, though the polleras are usually passed down from generation to generation. The length of the skirt must match the height of the dancer specifically because the skirt must bell out properly while the woman dances with skirt in hand. Catholic influences are evident in the rosaries warn around the women’s necks, as well as the heavy gold necklaces and golden crowns.




Tembleques is the name of the non-jewerly ornaments that are place in the head of the woman who wears a pollera. They are made of different materials such as wire, imitation pearls, fantasy stones and crystals, fish scales, and sometimes real pearls and gold.

The tembleques vary in their shapes and purposes. Most resemble flowers because the actually represent the flowers that women from centuries ago wore in their hair. However, some tembleques are modeled on animals. Many tembleques bear the name of flowers and others are named according to their purpose.

In total, a properly dressed wears from 12 to 15 pairs of tembleques. They can either white or multicolored.

The look isn’t complete without long, solid gold necklaces and ornate gold hair combs. 




The men wear much simpler attire. The Montuno, as pictured above, is the traditional dress worn by men during town festivities, national celebrations, and particularly when performing Panama folk dances, together with women wearing Polleras. It consists of a white long-leeve shirt and closed neck (Camisilla), black long pant, traditional straw hat with black lines (Sombrero Pintao), small bag hanging on the left side of the body (Chacara), and black and white shoes (Chinelas). They often wear two-toned shoes because the men wish to bring attention to their fast footwork while dancing. The straw hat is also unique to Panama.





Panama: General information


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