By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero


The Kuna women integrate the mola into colorful blouses.

The sensual pleasures evoked by traditional crafts of the Kuna people and “a circle of women” making quilts in the historic patterns and style of Americana, are part of The World According to Joyce Gross: Quilts from the Dolph Briscoe Center and Fabric Tattoos: The Spirit of the Mola at the Museum of Quilts and textiles in San Jose. Probably engaging the one of the most fundamental of fabric arts outside of weaving itself, these rich objects of cotton cloth are marvels of the power of elemental design and patient craftsmanship. On close inspection, both reveal the most precise and exact stitches of hand sewn creations that — at least in the case of some of these quilts — appear to have been repeated into the millions on a single work. This particular collection from the Dolph Briscoe Center at the University of Texas, Austin, is a 19th and 20th C collection, and has a timeless charm. The molas, too, are the recent styles and technical achievements of artists of the 20th C.


Tiger Lily by “Chicago’s Quilting Queen”, Bertha Stenge

It is interesting that both collections have background in the San Francisco Bay area as well. Joyce Gross, Isabella Lively and Charlotte Patera were women who lived in Marin County and even knew each other. Beginning with Joyce Gross and her affinity for the revival of the American Quilt in the 1960’s, and branching off into interest in the mola, they collected, researched, published, promoted and dedicated years to educating the public to these fabric arts. Isabella Lively and Charlotte Patera donated their mola collections to the Museum of Quilts and Textiles in San Jose, while the Dolph Briscoe Center for Americana acquired the Gross collection of quilts in 2008.


The Zigzag Flash Pattern mola

The Museum’s Gallery Guide includes a fascinating essay by Leslie Larson that tells us about the cultural shifts of the Kuna people since the arrival of European colonization of the hemisphere, and their flight to the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Geometric tattoo patterns and colorful body painting traditions led to new activities in textiles and the birth of the mola as an artform in the late18th C as western trade fabrics reached the Kuna.


Snakes on a Blouse

A structured society, with an unwritten language, there is a time of the day for each activity, and a duty and place for everyone’s contribution. Visual arts are the province of women and women make the molas, sometimes for personal pleasure and their own distinct blouses and sometimes for trade. Some molas have been worn before they make their way to sale. The Kuna women had developed a large network of effective sale sites for the mola by the turn of the 20th C. Further, over the years the craft has become perfected and as a result, the more recent molas are in fact the most elaborate, and carefully executed.


Lobsters suggest repeat patterns in this complex mola.

Layers of tightly woven cotton in primary colors are slit to reveal the colors beneath and designs are secured through fine appliqué and embroidery. Some of the patterns are purely abstract, and others can reflect any and all aspects of the life surrounding the artists. A lobster from the sea and an aircraft passing overhead present equally fascinating opportunities for subject matter for the artists.


Album with Dogs and Birds, unknown quilt maker, attributed to York, 1850- 1900

Born in Alameda, Joyce Gross was the first female manager of the Daily Californian at the University of California, Berkeley where she was a history major. She moved with her family to Mill Valley in 1955, and in 1969 she and two PTA friends formed the Mill Valley Quilt Authority. Gross began weekly quilting bees, quilt collecting, curating quilt exhibitions and publishing the Quilters Journal. She continued her scholarly research and support for quilting throughout the 80s.

One of the most important contributions made by Joyce Gross to quilting was her research on the women who made these works of essentially American art. The Museum’s exhibition, The World According to Joyce Gross, is full of interesting documentation that makes these lovely quilts come alive. Ask for the gallery guide.

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