The Kuna man came up to Happy Times in an ulu steered by his brother-in-law and called out, “Hola!” in a soft voice. He pulled up to the rear steps and handed me a handsome business card which read Venancio Restrepo, Master Mola Maker. “Would you like to see my molas?” Of course! After only a few days in Kuna Yala, I’ve become a fan of these native handcrafts.
Molas are pieces of embroidered cloth measuring about 18 by 12 inches and made originally to decorate Kuna clothing. They’re made of layers of fabric that are cut and designed so that various colors appear on the top layer. Then the mola maker sews around the puffs of fabric according to the design. He or she also embroiders individual stitches to complete the design which may be a jaguar, yucca leaf, fish, pelican, heron, Kuna village, ulu paddle or other motifs of the culture.
Usually Kuna women make molas, spending hours each day lying in a hammock and embroidering fabric. The women hold the family’s purse strings and their specialty adds a significant amount to the kitty. When a daughter is not born into a family, the eldest son is raised as a female to continue the mola tradition. In other words, he’s raised as a she. There’s no stigma attached to transvestites in the Kuna culture. When Venancio’s parents died, he returned to wearing men’s clothing. Lisa Harris (below) remained a transvestite after her parents died.
Molas cost anywhere from $10US up to $100 each. The difference? The skill of the mola maker. The best ones use tiny stitches that are barely visible to the eye and more sophisticated designs. The less experienced mola makers use larger stitches and cruder designs. Some makers have expanded into beer coozies and small handbags, but Mikayla and I prefer the molas as the best expression of the native art.
I purchased our first mola in Nargana from Briseida. It’s a simple design with a fish and cost $15. Mikayla hung it on the wall of her cabin.
I later bought two molas from Lisa Harris who’s earned a reputation as a good mola maker. I was impressed with her work after investigating the size of her stitches. She showed many examples, and it was hard to choose among them. Mikayla and I finally settled on one that illustrates a Kuna medicine man or shaman as he prepares good medicine. The design also includes a nuchu which in the local culture is a statuette about 15 inches tall. The nuchu has a spirit of its own that may be good or bad. At the same time it represents its owner’s spirit and serves as a link between the spiritual and physical world. Every Kuna owns a nuchu. We liked the story behind this mola. Our other mola bears two yucca leaves on a bright orange background.
I was finished buying molas until I saw Venancio’s, the result of 33 years of experience. His are extraordinary and he’s truly a master. His work is superior due to the designs that are more art than craft. One mola had a pair of toucans whose detail was dazzling, creating a sense of three dimensions. Another bore a pattern of medicine flowers graphically repeated on a field of orange. It was stunning.
After much mulling I decided on a small bird pattern that Mikayla and I both liked. It features pelicans and herons and each bird is slightly different from the next. It’s flawless. I spent $80US on this piece of native art that will be framed and displayed when we return to shore.
Many other women cruisers have fallen for molas, and often the price is something that we girls keep to ourselves (wink).