Molas form part of the traditional dress of Guna Indians, the native people of Guna Yala, Panama. In Dulegaya their native language 'mola' simply means shirt or clothing and the word refers to the brightly coloured panels found on the front and back of blouses worn by Guna women.
Molas have been made by Guna women for around two hundred years, prior to that the women would cover themselves in body paint made from natural materials. Originally, the geometric patterns used in body painting were transferred to fabric but, over time designs have expanded to include many more patterns, motifs and elaborate designs.
Guna girls learn how to stitch molas from a young age. Women tend to make their own molas and will make new ones for special events and rituals. The ability to make a fine mola with small, invisible stitching and beautiful imagery is considered a status symbol and something to be proud of within Guna culture. The maker chooses their own motifs which are often inspired by aspects of culture, everyday activities, nature, dreams and folktales. These are then surrounded by various patterns which have symbolic meanings. An ongoing theme when creating molas is to ensure that all the space is filled, as it is believed by Guna Indians that evil spirits settle in empty spaces.
The mola design below represents the traditional, golden nose rings worn by Guna women. (Notice how every bit of space has been filled.) The zigzag pattern around some of the edges symbolise teeth biting away at evil spirits and so, are thought to be protective for the wearer.
Traditional molas are valuable and sought after by collectors around the world. The Guna women have also used their creative skills to make less intricate, lower quality molas specifically for the tourist trade, enabling more people to enjoy these brightly coloured, handmade treasures and Guna artisans to earn an income.
Traditionally molas are made using black, red and orange cotton fabric and include embroidery in other colours. Take a look at how a beautiful, multicoloured owl mola is made in the short video below.
Taking inspiration from the hand stitched designs made by Guna women we made our own designs using coloured paper.
To get your free introduction to Mola art, templates and activity sheets go to our free resources page, scroll down and click the image to start your download.
Have fun and please, share with us what you make!