In Search Of Inspiration… The Panama Mola

I thought I should start the new season by writing about the textiles of my home country, Panama. I will be talking about the ancient Panama Mola which comes from one of the oldest cultures we have in this small land.

Panamanian Flag

Panama is found in the Central America regions, between Colombia on the East and Costa Rica to the West. To the South lies the Pacific Ocean and to the North the Caribbean. The capitol, Panama City is a modern and thriving metropolis.

On this occasion, I am writing this from the region formerly known as “San Blas” but now called “The Guna-Yala Comarca”. It is found on the northeastern side of my beloved country of Panama, as well as the most westerly side of Colombia.

Panama Mola
Panama Mola

The Caribbean is a gem of a sea and one of the most romantic destinations on Earth, this is where the Guna Yala people are found.

It has been a long time since I have been in this beautiful archipelago. The last time I was here there were none but a handful of places you could stay on the whole of the 365 individual islands. Today that has changed a lot and the choices are plentiful and varied.

Back then I was practically broke, and cheap accommodations were as below…

Panama Mola

It was pleasant to see that some shacks like this one are still available.

Back then the tourist economy was in its infancy and the ability to visit the islands was heavily controlled by both the government and the Guna people themselves. I have to admit, as Panamanians, we did not appreciate the beauty of this place. It took a flood of Americans and Europeans for the locals to notice that there was no need to travel to the Virgin Islands or Cuba to find gorgeous coral reefs and white sand beaches.

Today it’s a well-known region to the many yachtsman who come from far and wide (surprisingly including many Australians) to rest for a few weeks before sailing back to Europe, down south through the Panama Canal, or up to the East coast of the USA and Canada.

For those who approach the region by car it is a short two and a half hours ride from Panama City to Carti Port where you can get a boat ride to the islands of your choosing.

Panama Mola

You can do about four islands in 6 hours for about USD$40.

Once there you can hop around from island to island swimming and buying the local craft, the Mola.

Panama Mola
Panama Mola
Panama Mola
Panama Mola
Panama Mola

A Bit Of History On The Panama Mola

The Panama Mola has been a part of the Guna Yala tribe for over 300 years. The island of Caledonia gives us most of our clues as to its origins. We do not know for certain how the evolution of the Mola came about, but in my research, I found a source that dates all the way back to 1696 in a small town called New Eddingberg. Some in the locality know the region of Puerto Escoces (Scottish Harbor) that today appears on the map as Puerto Inabaginya. Here is where this wonderful crafting tradition seems to have originated.

Native history tells us that when Europeans arrived in the Guna Yala region they found the indigenous people wearing very little in the way of clothing with tattoos all over their body. The patterns were made in geometric figures with the flora and fauna of the region. These designs were later transferred onto fabric, giving birth to what we know as a Mola today.

In my travels I have found a remarkable similarity with the tribes of northern Thailand and the Mola, although made in a different technique I could not help myself to wonder, is it that the design is so simple that many people thought of it or are the Gunas somehow influenced by the much older Asian tribes or vice versa even? Are the Gunas somehow related to the Indigenous people of Northern Thailand? Have a look at the pictures below, the first two are by the Thai people from the Chiang Mai region.

The Guna of the San Blas Islands

Panama Mola
Panama Mola

One thing is for sure is that the skirt or saron in the picture above is without a doubt a strong influence from Indonesia. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the Guna starting wearing them, inspired by imported Indonesian batik fabric skirts.

If you’d like to lean more about the ancient art of batik fabric printing, don’t miss this detailed article about the process.

What Are Molas?

As I have mentioned before the Gunas are also found in Colombia, below is a video beautifully put together showing how a Mola is made in far better words than I could ever explain. Hope you watch it.

Mola in the Guna language literally means clothing or shirt. It is made with 2 to 7 layers of fabrics of different colors made in a patchwork, applique technique, and embroidery. They are very much part of the vestment of the Guna woman. The best ones never get sold until a better one is made, so when you purchase a Mola you may notice the first layer looking a bit worn and bitten by the sun. Only the best quality cotton can be used since this article of clothing will sustain salt water, sun, and a rigorous washing often involving a large flat stone.

I have bought a simple design of a Panama Mola, that I will be using inside a PVC bowling bag that I think you will enjoy making for yourselves. The pattern that I will be using is the reversible crossbody bag as the bag inside.

Panam Mola
Panam Mola

Hope you’ve enjoyed my little tour of this beautiful piece of heaven and this introduction to Panama Molas.

My wish for you is that one day you get to enjoy these waters as much as I have with my sister Keyla, my brother Willi, my nephew Raul David, and my daughter Sam.

Join me next time when I will be sharing with you our national costume La Pollera which can take up to a year or more to make. Until then Happy Sewing!

Need more inspiration? Check out more in this series.

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