Virginia Nemir Lukefahr: Paper Molas - for Elementary

Applique Paper Molas

Submitted by: Virginia Nemir Lukefahr, K.E. Little Elementary School, Dickinson ISD
Unit: Design - Textile Art - Kuna Culture
Lesson: Paper Mola - Reverse applique
Grade level: Third grade and up




  • Recognize the traditional art form, the mola from Panama.

  • Become familiar with the history of the mola.

  • Understand the use of the elements of design in a mola: line, shape, and color

  • Make choices regarding color in order to create a paper mola.

  • Create a successful piece of art with balance and pattern.

  • Gain experience cutting positive and negative paper shapes.


teacher with work BACKGROUND: The Cuna Indian Tradition of Making Molas.

The mola is a unique type of embroidered women’s blouse created by the Cuna Indians of San Blas, off the eastern coast of Panama.  A mola (meaning "blouse" in Cuna language) is a brightly colored cloth panel hand stitched using reverse appliqué technique.  The mola designs are traditionally abstract and based on natural formations found in coral. The early 19th century Spanish explorers and settlers may have influenced the Cuna Indians by introducing needle worked cloth. Recently the designs have expanded to include figurative depictions of animals, fish, and vegetation that are native to the San Blas islands.


The origin of the mola is unknown but may have come from pre-Hispanic body painting designs. The mola is an important part of the Cuna Indian woman’s traditional costume and is worn with pride.

This lesson plan targets children in the 3rd through 5th grades.

It can be completed in 90 minutes



Show video Art Is... Paper Molas. by Peggy Flores (decide how much to show).
Use picture of a mola to refer to during the lesson.
(Refer to SRA Art Connection, Level 1, p. 108)
National Geographic has some excellent images of the Kuna. (use a CD-Rom Search of the collection).



  • Who has family members or friends that sew clothes, weave material, crochet, or embroider material?

  • Has anyone ever made you something special to wear?

  • (Refer to picture of mola) Where can you find repeated colors and shapes in this mola? Are the shapes on the left half of the mola the same as the shapes on the right?

  • What does balance mean to you? (answer: equal or similar elements are placed on the right and left sides of the picture.)

  • How does the artist create a balanced design?

  • What is a positive shape? (Answer: "the area that shapes and forms fill.") What is the negative shape? (answer, "the empty area between and around shapes and forms.")

  • Where do you see positive and negative shapes? What shapes are used to create positive and negative spaces?

  • What feeling is created by using positive and negative shapes?

  • If you could make your own nature design for a mola what would you choose?


Tell the student to create a balanced design from nature using positive and negative shapes. Then they will use this design to create a paper mola.



1.   Decide which color you want to show up the most, and choose that color of construction paper. Fold the paper in half. Draw an outline of an animal such as a butterfly, fish, etc.  Make the shape over-sized.  Be sure the shape goes all the way to the edge of the paper on the folded side only. Draw a few vertical oval shapes in the background (as seen in traditional Cuna designs).

2.   Cut out all shapes using scissors. To get in the small rounded shapes crease the paper and cut a small slit to get your scissors in to the space and snip along the line. Avoid cutting to the edges of the paper.

3.   Place the negative-shaped paper (the sheet from which the cutout has been removed) over another colored sheet. (Save the positive shapes--the removed cutouts-- of your design for decorating your mola later.)  Place the two papers precisely so the corners match up. With a pencil, trace the shape of your animal onto the bottom sheet. Then remove the top sheet.  Redraw the outline on the bottom sheet about ¼" bigger than previously traced design.  Cut along this line. Don’t cut through the open sides (see step 2).

4.   Do the same again with the third sheet of colored paper. (Note paper could be stapled or paper clipped at the top to keep them linked up remove staples when finished).

5.   Sandwich all the layers together, starting with the sheet that is not cut.  On top of this place the first sheet you cut, then the second and lastly the third.  Glue the four layers together in order.  Keep all the outside edges aligned.

6.   You can add even more colors to your mola by placing small scraps of different colored paper inside any of the cut-out openings. Glue or tape them in place. Animals may be embellished with appliqué shapes. Repeat colors from the four colors - select additional colors carefully.

7.   You can also add some of the small positive shapes from colors you have already cut out from your design. Glue these on top of your mola

8.   Tell how your design is balanced. Tell how your design shows unity.



Use colored rectangles of felt to make a mola. Sketch your design on tracing paper and transfer the design to the felt.


Note: Red is the most common color used in molas. Use it and a combination of bright colors such as holiday green, lemon yellow, shocking pink, and midnight black.



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