Having a background in textiles and working in the industry has been a struggle of opposing priorities for me. On one hand, the industry is one of the most polluting worldwide and many workers are being exploited. It has an extreme output often followed by mindless consumption. On the other hand, textile crafts hold so many traditions and bring generations together. The way we dress tells and shows so much about us, with textiles and clothing having always been a symbol of status, belonging and culture.
My main motivation behind traveling to Central America was to get a feel for some of the indigenous arts and crafts, especially within the world of textiles for the positive above-mentioned reasons. Being from Europe, we surely have some traditional crafts, but they have been marginalized through the years, and do not play the same role in our culture as they do within indigenous cultures. This same motivation is also what brought me to volunteer at Trama Textiles here in Guatemala.
Ida, your author and volunteer at Trama Textiles
Photo: Bella Falk
I started my travels in Central America in Panama. Perhaps like me when I first arrived in the country, you do not know much about it, so let me offer just a small amount of background information.
The autonomous territory of Guna Yala is located in the north of Panama and also includes the gorgeous San Blas islands. The beautiful molas are an essential part of Guna culture and the women proudly wear them on their blouses as part of their dress.
In Panama there are seven indigenous peoples that make up 12% of the Panamanian population and control 30% of the land as demarcated territories or regions. They each have their own traditional craft, but the one I will tell you about today is the amazing molas from the Guna people.
Their traditional dress has changed over time. In pre-Columbian times, the Guna women wore a wrapped skirt and their upper bodies were decorated with body paint applied with a carved wooden roller to make a repeated pattern. The patterns were intertwined to represent a maze that evil spirits would get lost in, thereby preventing them from entering the body and mind.
Pre-Columbian traditional dress for Guna women decorated with body paint.
Illustration: Museo de la Mola
In the early 16th century the Spaniards arrived and brought with them Western culture and Western religion. The Christian message had a constraining effect on the use of traditional clothing for the Guna, like it had on many indigenous peoples around the world where Chrisitian missionaries went. So over time the Guna people implemented the body-painted patterns into their textiles.
The full dress now consists of a red and yellow patterned head scarf (musue), a mola blouse (delemor), a patterned wrapped skirt (saburet), a gold nose ring (olasu) and arms and legs decorated with beads (wini).
Two molas are used for one blouse so they are made in pairs. Front and back are very similar but are made with slight variations. The molas are applied at front and back around the waist on the blouse. The blouse itself has a bright pattern, perhaps flowers, and from what I have observed, is often a synthetic material.
As with other indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mayas, men are usualy dressed in western style clothes, and it is the women who are wearing the traditional clothing making them icons of contemporary ethnic tradition.
The motifs in the molas represent everything around the Gunas and their world. Symbols of birds, animals, plants, tools, the elements, beasts, or the intertwined helix - which represent their worldview - all in more or less abstract or geometric depictions, are represented in the designs.
The maze from the body paint is transferred to the textiles by intertwining the patterns and motifs and filling in all blank spaces with decoration. The decoration can be small appliqués or embroidery, since the Gunas believe that empty spaces can hold the evil spirits. In Europe this philosophy was also used during several artistic eras, known as horror vacui, the fear of empty spaces.
The Guna decorates every empty space on the mola
Photo: Bella Falk
The molas are completely handmade with a reverse appliqué technique done by skillful women. The main color is the top layer and the contrasting colors are placed underneath. On the top layer, the motif is outlined and the fabric is cut with a small seam allowance around it, which is then turned inwards under itself and stitched by hand in the crease onto the layer below. The intricate designs take everything from weeks to months to finish and usually consists of three to seven layers. An old woman I met at a market told me that she was taught how to make molas when she was eight years old.
You can buy new as well as second hand molas. In cultures with traditions of handmade textiles, the work is appreciated even after the initial use. This is also seen in Guatemala, where many markets sell second hand huipiles or cortes or products made from them.
When the Guna women don’t want their delemor anymore, they will take off the mola and sell it. It is still a valuable textile, and some consider the second hand molas finer than the new ones. They will likely have traces of being used, like being bleached from the strong sun or have small tears, but this is all part of the charm.
Many elements make up the quality of the molas: The number of fabric layers used in the design, as well as how smooth, even and narrow the lines are. The quality of the stitches is also important; the more invisible the better. A symmetric or central design is incorporated that stands out from the background. Intricate cutouts, such as curves, zigzags or tiny squares are often used.
Guna woman selling molas at the Panama City waterfront
So when you go to Panama, enjoy all the Guna women walking around in their colorful clothing in Panama City and Guna Yala. Learn more about the molas at Museo de la Mola (the entrance is currently free) in Casco Viejo, Panamá City. Find molas for sale by the waterfront in all the market stalls where the Guna women sell them. Despite what quality, design and condition you like, remember that all molas are handmade by skillful women who have learned the traditions and symbolism of these textiles from generations before her.
I can't wait to explore more of the traditional textiles and what it brings to communities and cultures, when I continue traveling through Central America for a bit longer.
Written by Ida Damgaard Andersen
All pictures by Bella Falk / Passport & Pixels, www.passportpixels.com