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65 CREATING MOLAS T he availability of trade cloth, outlined in chapter 1, made it possible for Kuna Indian women to develop a unique form of dress. This chapter continues the explanation of the development process by describing how the cloth was transformed and how the Kuna mola blouse came into being on the achievement of the first two components of cultural authentication , selection and transformation. The second part of this chapter outlines the remaining two components of characterization and incorporation, which together resulted in the identification of the mola as integral to Kuna identity from “the inside” and “the outside,” meaning self-identification and identification of the Kuna people by others. On completion of each of these four components, the mola was culturally authenticated by the Kuna Indians. TRANSFORMATION: Structural Alteration of Cloth to Create Molas an explanation for the development of appliqué techniques The trade cloth found in mola blouses has been structurally altered by Kuna Indian women to create the blouses, which are now an integral part of their dress. The origin of the development of the appliqué techniques used to sew mola panels is not known. Appliqué techniques are also used by a number of American Indian tribes that originally were located around the Great Lakes.1 The development of ribbonwork and mola sewing techniques may be considered a logical progression from existing expressions of material culture. The techniques may have begun by the placement of one layer on top of another, with shaping to chapter two Figure 2.1 The cultural authentication of the mola blouse—the linkage of selection and transformation. Introduction 66 Chapter One Chapter Two reveal the base layer, which then progressed to more intricate designs. While mola appliqué and ribbonwork most likely developed independently, neither technique required direct instruction from an outsider. The initial techniques are easily achieved, and there is a progression to more complicated techniques. Ribbonwork originally consisted of lengths of silk ribbon layered upon each other and structurally transformed by, first, reverse appliqué and, later, the addition of surface appliqué. These ribbon strips were then sewn onto garments, particularly women’s skirts and shawls (which are rectangular and interchangeable , i.e., have dual purpose). The techniques have been described by Neill, who notes that “ribbonwork is a syncretic tradition—a composite of European materials and Indian style,” which is the case also with Kuna molas. There are other parallels with the Kuna designs, including symmetry and the use of multiple layers.2 Ribbonwork techniques were developed many years prior to mola techniques and use both appliqué and reverse appliqué.3 For the Kuna and for the different American Indian tribes, across which ribbonwork techniques were diffused by geographic proximity, the adopted technique as applied to clothing is unique. Neither ribbonwork nor the Kuna appliqué technique has been used by other ethnic groups in the same manner. There does not appear to have been any transfer of the technique between the American Indians from the Great Lakes area and the Kuna people, though it would have been possible for Kuna sailors to have had contact with American Indians as part of their sea journeys, possibly to North America. Different American Indian tribes have created different patterns of ribbonwork, and a number of studies have reported on the different styles, motifs, colors, and construction techniques. One of the simpler ribbonwork techniques, which Neill suggests was invented by American Indian women as a way of manipulating trade cloth,4 is the same technique called by Kuna women dientes (meaning “teeth” or perhaps “saw tooth”) in mola panels, suggesting the universality of this simple yet visually effective technique. The sawtooth technique is not difficult to sew, and Neill explains the steps in the process: “One length of ribbon is placed on top of another; slits are cut in the top ribbon perpendicular to the woven edge; the top ribbon is folded underneath, at an angle; the ribbons are stitched in place.”5 For molas, one layer of fabric is placed on top of another, whereas for the Great Lakes American Indian tribes, lengths of ribbon were originally used, and later, strips of fabric were employed. It is likely that the ribbonwork techniques developed from other traditional designs of American Indian material culture artifacts, such as twined bags and quillwork, and in a similar manner to some of the early mola designs that resemble Kuna basketry designs and possibly body painting designs. Abbass has developed different typologies to classify types of ribbonwork designs...


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