Mola is the word for "clothing" in the Kuna language of the Kuna people living off the northern coast of Panama on the San Blas islands. It is the most famous form of art produced in Panama. Molas are incorporated into a woman’s clothing, usually with one panel on the front of the blouse and a matching or related one on the back.
Each mola is traditionally hand stitched using thousands of tiny stitches and several layers of different material. Although sometimes using the technique of appliqué, usually reverse appliqué is used in their making. For this the material is layered, the design is selectively cut out across the layers, the edges of the cut-out material are tucked under and then stitched in place. The end result is the revelation of the design in the colors of the material beneath. Often appliquéd and reverse appliquéd molas have top-stitching as well. Detailed molas can take up to a year to make.
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the land of the Kuna, the Kuna wore few clothes but decorated their bodies with colourful designs using natural pigments. When encouraged to wear clothes by these same missionaries, the Kuna followed their body painting designs in their molas, which they wore then (and now) as clothing. The Kuna word for a mola blouse is "tulemola", or "dulemola", meaning "Kuna people's clothing".
The Kuna create their mola artistry by drawing on ideas or narratives from their history, culture and beliefs. They usually portray birds, fish, family life, spirits and cultural designs, and their contemporary molas may include airplanes and warships, biblical themes, cartoon characters, national emblems or commercial ads. Although their traditional forms often utilize patterns from body painting, more recently they also incorporate styles from classical European and western art as well.
The mola making tradition is a dying art form with the arrival of the sewing machine and the new generation of Kuna.