Buying Molas in Panama

The Guna are famous for their molas: fabric pictures made using a reverse appliqué technique, and Panama's most famous souvenir. Guna women wear these designs on their blouses, but they are also used to decorate everything from purses to pillows to hot pads to wall hangings. The original molas echoed the geometric designs employed by the Guna as body paint—Christian missionaries' influence in the 19th century brought modest body covering to the region for the first time, and the word mola means "clothing" in Dulegaya, the Guna language. Over the decades, designs have taken on abstract nature scenes, and, today, even a few TV and cartoon characters show up in the artwork. Regarding the traditional geometric designs, look closely before you buy: some molas feature a reverse swastika, an ancient Guna symbol. You may not want one of those. Mola production is a major source of income in Guna Yala, and you'll often see women sewing them as they chat with neighbors. Expect to pay $20 or more for a well-made mola. Number of layers used increases the price; two is most common, but the premium works incorporate several more layers. Fineness of stitching, up to the point of being nearly invisible, also means a finer mola. Embroidery frequently enhances a mola's design, but a top-notch product creates its design strictly through reverse appliqué technique. Oddly, a bit of wear or fading is not considered to be a flaw. Perhaps a panel had a previous life as a piece of someone's blouse and is now being used in another work. Such a "blemish" adds to the mola's authenticity and means that it wasn't created strictly for tourists.

Bargaining is expected, but don't haggle too hard. Molas are usually already reasonably priced when you consider the labor that went into their production, and those few extra dollars will mean much more to the vendor than to you. If you plan on buying multiple molas, try to buy from a variety of women. You'll benefit more families that way.

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