We had a long dry spell without Interweb connectivity. We sailed from Panama to Georgia with hardly the opportunity (or inclination) to post. So now I'm going to catch up, starting in Panama and moving forward the way we did in reality. Now, where did I leave off...?
The mola is typically the front and/or back panel to a woman's blouse or dress. It is intricately sewn in the reverse applique technique (sort of a cross between quilting and embroidery that is totally beyond me) and requires a LOT of practice to perfect. Bottom line: the more detailed the design and more small and intricate the pattern, the better. Also, the more layers of fabric that are used in creating the finished mola, the more time and expertise is involved. The stitches on a high-quality mola - all sewn by hand - are so small as to be microscopic. A good 5-to-7-layered mola can set you back $60-$100 for 10" x 14" of fabric. Or more.
Fun fact: as the market in selling molas to tourists grew more lucrative, local women were pushed out of the industry as their men took over most of the master-mola-making.
It takes some practice to recognize a good mola. Lots of native Panamanians (the Kuna tribe, almost exclusively) sell them, and even a bad one is worth buying. I bought a few small, beginner-level molas in Panama City during a time I wasn't sure I'd find any others in our travels. These are the molas you see here, above and on the left - look closely and you'll see the asymmetry of the designs, the erratic stitching, and the non-uniformity of the corners and edges. I eventually made them all into pillow slipcovers since my amateurish sewing skills could do no harm.
Master mola makers out in the hinterlands of the San Blas islands of Panama are unimpressed with such work and shake their heads when they see what you've bought from the tourist traps in Panama City. Venancio is one of the better-known master mola makers in the San Blas; and if you ever go there and stay for a while in one of the popular cruiser anchorages, he will no doubt paddle by to show you what a real mola looks like. Such as this one of a deer, on the right.
Bring much cash. Venancio's molas are worth it.
And here's what the women mola makers on Isla Maquina in the San Blas can turn out:
What are my plans for these, the better-quality molas I bought in the San Blas islands? I'm thinking of pressing them between two sheets of glass so that you can see the back's fine stitching; then hanging them as you would a painting.
You know; to hang in the house I don't have. Haaaa!