Mola Panel, Panama, 1900-1999, cotton, appliqué and embroidery, 13 x 17 in.
Hailee Milton is a student in the School of Human Ecology studying Textiles and Fashion Design.
Many textiles serve the purpose of commemorating historical events. For example, the American flag is an important textile whose colors hold important significance. While perhaps less known, a textile called Mola is a fun exploration into the history of Panama. Mola means “shirt” or “clothing,” and is made using reverse appliqué. Several layers are sewn together, and the design is revealed by cutting away parts of each layer. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible and the finest Molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.
This particular Mola is rectangular and made from cotton. Beautifully appliquéd and embroidered, it depicts a snapshot image of war. This observation is supported by the words “helicopter,” in reference to the helicopter centered in the piece, as well as the mini helicopter in the top right corner and airplane in the upper left corner. There are four soldiers, identifiable by the helmets on their heads, and the walking solider in the bottom left corner holds a gun.
Made in Panama, the history of the country is reflected throughout this textile, specifically in referencing the monumental Panama Canal and the 1989 United States invasion of Panama that caused hundreds of civilian deaths. It was an idea that benefitted millions, but cost thousands of lives. I believe the tragic irony in this significant event is subtly portrayed throughout the colors and construction of this piece. War is a very masculine, gruesome, and depressing scenario—therefore the use of bright colors that play off each other could create a confusing response in viewers. Yet, it is done beautifully – without exploiting the event, and while being mindful of those affected. Furthermore, it beautifully portrays the bright and vibrant culture of Panama.
The function of this textile is still significant in Panama’s culture today, and proudly reflects its people. Shirts and clothing are an everyday necessity for most cultures, much like how the Panama Canal is a necessity to commercial goods. Before the canal, it used to take 67 days to sail from New York to San Francisco. Now, it only takes around eight to ten hours to complete such a trip. It is interesting to look into the background of textiles, since many are inspired from events. I think this particular textile did a great job of gaining inspiration from a historical situation, and paid a thoughtful tribute.
Discover more about this piece here.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.