Back in the 60’s, my dad lived and served as a missionary among the Kuna people who live in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. The people called him “Orokua” which translated from Kuna means something like “little round golden girl.” Ha ha! It’s kind of a long story how that came about. My dad loved the Kuna people, and they loved him back. So, I’ve spent my whole life hearing stories of the Kuna, seeing photos of their distinctive dress, and looking at the stunning hand-crafted Kuna art my dad brought home with him. Molas are part of the traditional dress of the Kuna women. They are elaborate hand-sewn reverse-applique panels with intricate designs. For several of my teenage years, I had a mola hanging just outside my bedroom on the wall. My grandma has a mola hanging in her living room. My dad has many molas hanging in his home.
A few years ago I asked my dad if I could have a mola. He didn’t have many left, but he gave me one that had previously been cut apart. I put some pieces of it on the wall in my family room, but I tucked away the rest of it in my fabric box for some future unknown project and forgot about it.
Last Saturday, my friend, Rochelle, owner of SlingRings, gave a little crash course on do-it-yourself Asian-style baby carriers. It was perfect timing because I’ve been wanting a more supportive carrier, and I didn’t want to spend what it would cost to purchase an Ergo. So I brought lots of fabric I had previously purchased on clearance, planning to use some of it to make my own mei tai. I only had time to sew the waist straps that day, but I planned to finish the rest at home.
After Googling “Asian-style baby carriers” to get some more ideas, I decided to dig through my box of fabric and see if I could find some more colorful/fun fabric to use on the main body of the mei tai to make it prettier. While digging through, I found the mola scraps and a HUGE grin came to my face. YES! PERFECT. What started as a quick project without much sentiment suddenly became something so meaningful and special and even spiritual. I can’t wait to show my dad what I made. I have a feeling my grown children will be fighting over this baby carrier when I’m gone.
I ended up buying some more clearance remnants of black fabric and fleece (for padding) and combined that with fabric I already had. I’d guess I spent between $5 to $10 total on all the supplies. I pretty much created my own design as I went, based very loosely on this “Baby Ball Overall mei tai” pattern. I wanted the waist to have more structure and support like an Ergo, so I adapted that quite a bit. It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of project, and I put my heart and soul into it knowing that I was probably creating a family heirloom. I started by appliqueing the mola pieces onto the front panel and built the rest of the carrier from there. Here are some pics of the construction process, finished product, and first tries wearing it…
Suddenly, after finishing, I was overcome with a deep yearning to know… what is it like for pregnant Kuna women, how do they give birth, what are their traditions and ceremonies, do they wear their babies, how long do they breastfeed, etc.? I’ll be doing what I can do answer those burning questions through internet research and phone calls with my dad. Stay tuned… but, in the meantime, enjoy this lovely Kuna poem…
By Irik Limnio
The twelve spirits of the earth say
That you didn’t cry on the day they birthed you
In their home you roamed in the protuberances of the brilliant stars.
They say you walked secretly
And you melted into the pale plants which appeared before your gaze.
The woman who gave birth to you says that the clouds
Arranged themselves in your glory just for the lament
And humans complain to you that they have had a terrifying dream.
Night, it seems to me that you undulate, pitted with the little eyes of the cherubs who shine continually.
I think you are a Nocturnal like the one I have in the depths of my being.
P.S. Check out Mola Momma who works with the Kuna women to produce mola art, toys, and accessories. She strives to keep mola-making alive while “creating an economic avenue for tribal women for the past 19 years.”