Just off the east coast of Panama in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea you will find the coral cay known as the San Blas Islands. This archipelago is home to the Kuna people who have inhabited these islands for more than 600 years and express their traditional art and culture through their own unique form of quilting.
 
San Blas
Islands
 
The Kuna were driven north from their homelands in the Amazon Basin many centuries ago. They established themselves on these idyllic tropical islands and today are recognised as the independent nation of Kuna Yala.
 
The Kunas are a matriarchal society and it is the women who make the decisions, take control of the family assets and pass property and control down through the female line. They display their wealth by wearing gold jewellery, especially large nose rings.

The Kuna people live a simple life. They have no fresh water on their islands and this has to be ferried by boat from the mainland. Their diet consists mainly of fish caught in the local waters and vegetables grown on the mainland.

 
Mola  Mola

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century these people had been isolated from the outside world. They wore minimal clothing and painted their bodies with traditional designs believing that this would ward off evil spirits. After missionaries arrived and converted the Kuna people to Christianity the women were encouraged to become more modest and to cover their bodies. Sadly this meant hiding the traditional body paintings from view and a desire to maintain and display their cultural traditions gave birth to the Mola.

The Mola, the focal point of female dress, is a quilted panel loosely stitched onto a blouse and worn with a cotton wrap skirt, headscarf and patterned arm and leg beads.
 
Originally these designs were either painted onto cloth or woven from local materials but when the women were able to purchase cotton yardage, the modern quilted mola was born.

The traditional costume has two molas panels stitched onto the blouse, one at the front and one at the back.

The mola is an expression of the tradition in design of the Kuna people and an important way for Kuna women to express themselves and demonstrate their talents.

 
Molas
 

The average mola measures approximately sixteen by twelve inches but this can vary depending upon the size of the intended wearer. Designs can be traditional tribal designs or an interpretation of the everyday things around such as plants, animals, birds and fish. They use basic tools in their work; cotton fabric, thread, needles, scissors, a thimble and a pencil are all that they need.

 

 
Molas
 

Traditionally, molas are made using the reverse appliqué technique and a mola panel can have anything from two to seven layers of fabric. The cloth is usually cotton, either new or recycled and the traditional colours are burgundy, black and orange, however, many other bright colours are used to create contrast in the design. These layers are basted together and a freehand design is sketched on the top layer (although many of the more experienced women can work without marking their design).

 

Parts of the top layer of fabric are cut away to reveal the next layer. The raw edges are needle turned and stitched in place with very tiny stitches. As a general rule larger patterns are cut from the top piece and the patterns become smaller as the maker progresses through the layers. To conserve her precious stash the maker will often insert a small piece of fabric just in the area where she wishes to use it.

The more modern designs are stitched by using fabric shapes appliquéd directly onto the base layer with some embroidery worked into the piece. You can often see a combination of direct and reverse appliqué in the same piece of work.

The predominant colour used in these modern designs is blue. Sometimes a modern mola will be made using multiple shades of blue whilst others combine blue with their traditional shades of orange and black.

There are many factors to consider when judging the quality of a mola. The number of layers, the fineness of the stitching, the width of the cuts and the artistic merit in the design and colour combination determine the quality of the work.

Molas can take anything from two weeks to six months to make depending upon the design, the size, the number of layers and the skill of the maker.

Some of the more modern molas incorporate embroidery alongside the appliqué. The women use ordinary sewing thread and a very fine needle to add these miniature embellishments.

A young Kuna girl will begin making her own molas after she has reached puberty. Before then she will assist other women by threading needles or cutting fabric pieces.

Materials are purchased from the mainland and the women take great care of their fabrics and tools. To prevent their cotton reels from becoming lost or misplaced they secure them on a shoelace or piece of string and often wear it around their neck.

Over the past few years small groups of tourists have begun visiting these islands and the local women are only too wiling to show off and to sell their molas. They are often pieces that have been worn as everyday dress and show visible signs of wear.

 
Mola  Mola

On a recent visit to the islands we met some of the Kuna people and watched the women at work. They live in clean and comfortable thatched homes with none of the conveniences that we take for granted. They sit in the sun with the children playing around them and talk between themselves as they busily stitch their molas, just as we do in our own quilting groups.