Story of the Mola Quilt

When I wrote about my long affection for stained linens the other day, I kept remembering my first real project using old stained fabric.  Below is the story of that quilt.

In 1992, I was trying to dream of the perfect wedding gift for my daughter and the man she was about to marry.  In wandering about the small towns along the coast of Lake Michigan, where I was staying at the time, I happened to see in a village variety store, buried deep in an old vitrine and nearly hidden by a clutter of odds and ends, a large stack of faded, stained molas.  When I asked the owner of the store about them, he said with a wave of his hand that they were his rag bag.  He meant that they were in such bad shape that no one was particularly interested in them.  The antique dealers had already picked through them for anything valuable.  I gathered as many as I could afford and left thinking I had been blessed by one of my daughter’s angels.

At home, I laid out the stack of old, worn molas on the bed, arranging and rearranging them, and finally began to piece them together for a wedding quilt.  I tried to clean them with various methods before starting to piece them because they were the rag bag after all, and they were musty and rough.  Speckled areas of mold had become permanent and part of the fabric.   Most of them had large stains, which simply would never release.  The truth is, not many people I showed the molas to were as enthusiastic about this idea for a wedding gift as I was.  Though clean now, the fabric was faded, torn, discolored, and several of the panels were very badly done to begin with, even antique dealers didn’t want them.  But I continued because the project was born of an angel.  There was something that moved me as I handled the multiple layers of the molas.  Stitching them together I kept imagining what the makers’ lives had been like.  I wondered when each mola had actually been made and worn.  I saw brown stains on some of them and thought either blood, or chocolate ice cream.  Did they have chocolate ice cream?  What were their lives like?   How did it feel to step out in the sun the first time a woman wore this particular piece?  Or this one, barely together with fat, wadded sections and long loose stitches, was it a child’s, just learning to sew?  And another, with stitches that pick up no more than two threads at a time, so perfectly even and straight in narrow labyrinthine lines of appliqué, did it belong to a matriarch who had spent long years perfecting her skill?

I thought about and imagined these stories as I sewed.  Then, I just had to make a mola myself.  When I did – a small one, only about a fourth the size of one of the Kuna pieces – it was not particularly fine work, but the next one was better, and the one after that a little better still.  I stitched these beginner’s pieces into the quilt top, adding new stories to old.  Next went in bits of fabric that had come from things belonging to my daughter, yet another story.  I embroidered words in the gaps which tried to connect the far times and places of all this different work.

For the quilting itself, I decided to use the ravines of the appliqué patterns as guides, with the idea that the back of the quilt would be a different version, or view, of the front, the quilting design a gathering of concentric geometries, a salmagundi of mazes, traced in red thread on blue fabric.  This was the first thing I ever quilted myself by hand.  I left in all the learning stitches at the center, the ones that stray nervously out of line, inelegant, but persistent.  I kept them for the story of my learning to rock a needle as fine as a hair and too short for my fingers.  They are graceless yet full of grace, these stitches, matching many that lumber eagerly across the Kuna molas on the front.

This quilt, made of so much awkwardness and lack of skill mixed right in with great experience, is now a beguiling thing to see.  And without question, it was not just me who made it so.  This was an unconsciously multicultural work.  I did not realize until well into it what was happening beneath my fingers.  The thing that really strikes me most about it now is how much character and strength are contributed by the worst-made molas in the array.  I have to admit that during the initial piecing together I considered leaving out a couple of these which, alone, are fairly sad and dreary things.  But something made me go ahead and include them.  In the end, together it all worked, and for me, the broad span of this quilt is a documentation of the differences and similarities among us all.  It’s together that we’re most impressive and beautiful.

mola quilt pieced and quilted entirely by hand over a period of 5 years

(The story of the mola quilt is excerpted from an essay I wrote titled “Fretwork: Reforming Me,” which was published in Readerly/Writerly Texts, 1996, and again in 1998 in the online journal PreText ElectraLite, now no longer available.)

6 Responses to “Story of the Mola Quilt”

  1. Deb G Says:

    Molas are so intriguing to me. What a wonderful project!

  2. caro Says:

    It was a great project for me. It was a long time ago, but thinking recently about working with stained fabric made me remember how ragged these molas were.

  3. Joanne Young Says:

    What a marvellous wedding gift and what a beautiful account of its making. I share your passion for the marks of time.

    • caro Says:

      Thanks! Despite most people’s misgivings, my daughter has cherished the quilt so I guess it turned out to be a good wedding gift.

  4. jude Says:

    fabulous!, just catching up here, a great story in this cloth , and old cloth renewed. i love it.

  5. caro Says:

    Thanks, Jude. I like the phrase “old cloth renewed” which is so attuned with what you do. I love it too.

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