Handmade Here: My Name is Panama

by Mayi Carles of Heartmade

panama handmade, mola, panama art, panama folk art, kuna indian art

When Jessika first announced the theme for this month, Handmade Here, I panicked. What was I going to talk about? My first thought. Panama has a nearly non-existent handmade scene. My second thought.

I turned to hubby for help with this one, as I was obviously feeling stuck.  He quickly brought clarity to my crazy girl senses when he just said: “Talk about the mola”. Brilliant hubby thinking in action right there.

So this is exactly what I’m going to talk about today. To tell you the story of the mola.

panama handmade, mola, panama art, panama folk art, kuna indian art

Said to have originated about 200 years ago from body painting, the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands in Panama developed the mola, a textile artwork embroidery + applique that depicts tropical flora + fauna + ease of island living in the tropics. French missionaries in Panama imported fine cotton poplins for the Kunas to cover their bare bodies. Victorian properties aside, the Kunas maintains some of the last + most beautifully crafted remaining indigenous textile art forms in the world.

The artistry of a mola reflects a synthesis of traditional Kuna culture with the influences of the modern world. Mola designs are often inspired by modern graphics like political posters + labels + books + TV, as well as traditional themes from Kuna legends + culture. It’s a juxtaposition of the old with the new, beautifully executed.

Many many hours of careful sewing are required to create a fine mola. The ability to make an outstanding mola is a source of status among Kuna women.

If you ever find yourself down here you might be curious to know that the quality of a mola is determined by such factors as:
•    number of layers
•    fineness of stitching
•    evenness and width of cutouts
•    addition of details such as zigzag borders, lattice-work or embroidery
•    general artistic merit of the design and color combination.

But one of the most magical things I leaned about the molas growing up is that when the Kuna women get tired of a particular blouse, they actually disassemble it + sell it to collectors. Since mola panels have been worn as part of the traditional dress of a Kuna woman they often show signs of wear such as fading + stitch marks along the edges of the panels. And these “imperfections” indicate that the mola is authentic + not made solely to be sold to tourists.

This is why molas are often sold in pairs, the pair consisting of the back + front panels of a blouse. The two molas are usually two variations on a theme. Matched molas complement each other + should be displayed or used together for the greatest impact.

Mola panels have many uses.  They can be framed as art or made into pillows, place mats or wall hangings.  Some people even make them into bedspreads or incorporate them into quilting projects.

And today’s story doesn’t end there. I actually want to share with you some amazing ways crafters are using molas + incorporating them into their designs. The result is a beautifully orchestrated + exquisite mix of an ancient art form with the modern. Take a look at some of my favorites:
panama handmade, mola, panama art, panama folk art, kuna indian art

Each THRED pillow blends the mola with the subtle design + color of nature + the tropics. A portion of each sale goes to a foundation to sustain the culture + artwork + traditional lifestyle of the Kuna Indians.

panama handmade, mola, panama art, panama folk art, kuna indian artThe main material used in South Industry’s line of accessories is the mola. 
The molas are reclaimed + reused to make accessories mixed with vibrant colors of leather creating a blend of the past tradition + a contemporary look + technique.
panama handmade, mola, panama art, panama folk art, kuna indian art
Mola Mama offers ultra high quality + hand stitched, reverse applique Kuna Indian mola fabric folk art with a New Mexico twist. The lively designs are all about the animals + bold + rich colors.

There you have it folks. You now comprehend how off I was in my initial assumptions about handmade culture Panama, don’t you?

A hope that this little glimpse into Panama’s most treasured art form was fun + inspiring + educational. I feel so blessed to have been able to share a tiny piece of who I am + where I come from with you.


Mayi Carles

Mayi Carles is a Panamanian multi-passionate artist + avid eco-friendly designer + heart behind heartmade blog + creative coach on a cupcake sugar rush. Mayi’s on a mission to build her very own creative empire + empower other creative hearts to build theirs too. To connect with Mayi, follow her tweets at @mayicarles.

Image Credits:

Image 1: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TradMola.jpg

Image 2: http://www.lolabeachpanama.com/attractions.php and http://www.news.com.au/travel/world/destination/panama

Image 4: http://www.thredpillows.com/

Image 5: http://www.etsy.com/shop/molamama

Image 6: http://www.etsy.com/shop/SouthIndustry


  1. Jessika says:

    Thank you so much for this gorgeous article Mayi, it is worthy of a magazine! I am very inspired by folk art/indigenous culture & really value this look into Panama history. I’ll be coming to see you one of these days!

  2. Stephanie Douglas says:

    Mayi -this was a visual feast and filled with information I didn’t know before. Thank you, and thank your hubby too for this great article.

  3. Taz Hamrick says:

    I have a shirt I purchased at the gift shop at the hotel Panama. Blue with a mola stitched across the front..Where can I get another one????

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