Jane Gruver, the Mola Lady, collected these molas between 1964 and the present to document the tradition and its evolution. Jane had a keen eye for selecting works that were well executed and artistic, but also documented the world of the Kuna and their traditions. These molas were set aside by Jane and were destined as a museum collection. They are now among the holdings of the Hudson Museum and join other molas donated by Jane.
Molas are reverse applique panels made in pairs for the front and back of women’s blouses. Several layers of cloth are stacked together and the design is made by cutting through the different layers of fabric to expose the desired color. Once the specific shape is achieved, the area is stitched around. Sometimes embroidery and applique are also used to add detail.
When Kuna women get tired of their mola blouses, they make new panels with designs that suit their fancy. Their “old” blouse is taken apart and the mola panels end up as art. Some are acquired by passengers of cruise ships; others are sold in Panama City or tourist spots in the region. What makes Jane’s collection unique is that she knew many of the women who made these molas and the “hidden” meaning of the designs–which is not typical for most molas.
For over 40 years, Jane Gruver, "the Mola Lady," and her husband Dr. Daniel Gruver lived and worked among the Kuna of the San Blas Islands of Panama. Jane acquired a deep appreciation and understanding of Kuna mola making and collected the molas presented here to document this tradition. Beginning in 1994, she began to donate molas to the Hudson Museum as a way of recording this artform and the lifeways of the Kuna for the future.
Molas are reverse appliqued fabric panels made to adorn women's blouses and were probably derived from body painting of the pre-Conquest era. The design motifs range from local flora, fauna, and sealife to everyday scenes, Kuna legend and myth, magazine ads, political posters, and scenes taken from books. Through these images, the Kuna capture their world in vibrant color.
For Jane a good mola is one that has a pleasing design and is well sewn. The image fills the entire design field. Molas may include some applique work and embroidery, but the majority of the handiwork must be done in a reverse applique technique. Molas generally feature unusual color combinations that provide high contrast between the different design elements in the mola.
Jane worries about the perpetuation of this tradition as more and more Kuna move from the Islands to Panama City and assimilate into the urban environment. Her search for traditional molas takes her to more isolated islands where women have not abandoned traditional dress. Here mola blouses continue to be made, worn and then recycled into mola panels which share the Kuna world with us.