These striking pieces of stitchery, called molas, are produced by the Cuna Indian women in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Next to the Pygmies in Africa, the Cunas are the smallest people in the world, and yet they are one of the few tribes never conquered by the Spanish conquistadores. The men were fierce warriors, while the women took full charge of the home and all the family wealth. Today these women are not only self-reliant, but are also artistic. They create the molas in pairs, no two exactly alike, to be sewn to the fronts and backs of their blouses (huipils). When they die, the women are buried in their blouses, so the really fine molas are not preserved or passed on.
The dominant colors of the molas are red and black, with under-layers of yellow, green, orange, blue, etc. Occasionally a black and white one can be found, and that is also an eye-catching combination. Originally the designs were of animals and plants or of ideas found in Indian mythology, which described the world as “many-layered.” Motherhood was often depicted by a baby creature within the body of the mother animal portrayed; woman and her nurturing role were highly regarded. Nowadays the women are still inspired to create designs by what they see around them—including cereal boxes and Parcheesi boards!
Although mola translates to mean cloth, it has come to mean more specifically the technique of reverse appliqué. Most of us are familiar with the more commonly seen overlaid appliqué in which a shape cut from one fabric is stitched to another larger piece of fabric, like the sunbonnet girls on quilt squares or a red satin apple stitched to the pocket of a pair of jeans.
In a mola, however, several rectangular pieces of fabric are layered so only the top one shows, and then shapes and lines are cut into the first layer, usually red, revealing areas of the second layer, often black. Next, smaller lines and shapes are cut into the exposed areas of black, revealing the third layer, often yellow. This procedure continues through as many as five layers. Each raw edge is turned under and secured with invisible slip stitches as the cuts are made.
This technique can be adapted to portray images or symbols that are meaningful in our own culture and in our own personal lives. For example, into an outline of the shape of your country or state, you could incorporate the official bird or flower and use your national colors. Symbols from the scriptures can also be worked into a mola. For example, you could depict the liahona, the iron rod, an olive tree, the tree of life, a rainbow, the lamps of the wise and foolish virgins, the lost sheep, a dove, the sun, moon, and stars, and so on. You could go to the scriptures, select one particularly significant to your own life, and choose an appropriate image to represent that idea. What about an image from your own family genealogy or from a favorite incident in Church history? You will be able to find many, many possibilities.
When I first saw molas, I became very excited to try the technique, but since it would be a time-consuming effort, I wanted a symbol or design that was worth much to me. I chose a poem by Emily Dickinson. It teaches that we are children of God, rich in potential but not always aware of it and not busy developing it. This poem reminded me of the Church callings I have been given and how they have challenged me to stretch and grow. I wanted that thought before me in my house, on my wall, to be a daily reminder.
Mine is a learner’s piece. A quality mola will have even, fine lines with no large areas undecorated. Mine lacks the fine, close lines of the experienced craftswoman. But it would be unrealistic for me, or for you, to expect to match the skill of years of experience on the first try.
In fact, a good beginning might be a simple design worked with only two layers. Try this ancient Hebrew lamp.
1. With white dressmaker’s carbon, trace the lamp outline onto a piece of black fabric that measures 6-by-8 inches. The fabric used should be a close weave that will not ravel easily—cotton, cotton-blend, or linen.
2. With the design facing up, place the black fabric over a 6-by-8-inch piece of red fabric.
3. Baste around the edges, through both layers, and then baste a line through the middle as well as diagonally from corner to corner.
4. Using a pair of small, pointed, sharp embroidery scissors, poke the point in anywhere along the outline of the lamp (cutting line) and snip along the line. Cut only an inch or two at a time, sewing the edges under between cuts.
5. With the point of the scissors or the needle, turn under the cut edge about 1/8 inch and secure that section of folded edge with small slip stitches; these will be invisible on the front of the work but visible on the back. Making a cut longer than an inch or two at a time will make it difficult to control your work. Where both sides of the cut are to be stitched, you might want to have two needles and threads going, or you can cross under at the back of the work. Continue to snip-stitch small sections, working from the outer areas of the design to the center.
6. You will cut the flame shape right out and turn under the edges of the flame-shaped hole in the black fabric revealing the red underneath. When the edges are all turned under, appliqué a small yellow flame in the center of the red one, or embroider the yellow center in satin or chain stitch.
Molas can be displayed in a variety of ways. One friend turned hers into a long banner hung by loops on a rod. Molas can also be stretched and framed like needlepoint or made into pillows. They can also be stitched to a skirt, a blouse, or a handbag or even become the yoke of a dress.
Now try your own design. You might want a modern figure in the traditional bright mola colors, or you might want to try pastel shades. Say something about yourself or to yourself in a mola.
white dressmaker’s carbon
2 pieces of fabric 6-by-8 inches, one black and one red
scrap of yellow fabric or yellow embroidery thread
black sewing thread