Put a Cuna Bird on It!


The sewing challenge for the month of April at “The Monthly Stitch” is to “Put a Bird on It”. What would I do? After thinking about it for a few weeks, I came up with an idea. I dug around until I found the white T-shirt with a beautiful hand-embroidered appliqué made by the Cuna (also Kuna) Native Americans who live on the San Blas Islands of Panama. I wore it a few times, but it’s on a white traditional T-shirt which is not really that flattering on me. I hung onto it because of it’s beauty and sentimental value. My oldest daughter lived in Panama for four years, and sent us beautiful Cuna Appliqués in the form of pot holders, T-shirts, and bags one Christmas. I also visited her one year, and brought back several molas and a few fabrics.

So,IMG_0404 with my tiny scissors in hand, I cut carefully around the appliqué, releasing it from the T-shirt. My vision was to attach it to a bodice and make a 50’s style summer dress. I chose two pieces from my stash that I thought would be interesting together, a sheer white floral, and a tiny checked rayon or blend of some kind. Both fabrics were purchased at the local senior center thrift for $1.00 a yard. It’s my favorite place to shop for fabric! I used Burda’s Modern Vintage Elizabeth dress bodice for the top. I changed the neckline to follow the curve of the applique  and then I used fabric glue spray to hold it to the outside bodice front. Next, I machine blanket-stitched it to the front. I attached the checked lining to the bodice and then I tackled the skirt.  I cut two rectangles of each fabric, layered them together, and gathered them as one. The side zipper is attached to both layers of bodice, but at the waist the sheer over-skirt is freed from the zipper. It is narrowly hemmed on each side and then joined at the side seam.



The overskirt  and underskirt have French seams. There were two bands of appliqué around each sleeve that I attached to a belt to bring the fabulous colors down toward the waist. Again, I was able to blanket-stitch the pieces to the belt using my sewing machine.


IMG_0418IMG_0414IMG_0401I’m very pleased with the outcome. The birds have flown off the T-shirt and onto a dress that will see the light of day after living in the dark cupboard for more than 20 years. Thank you Monthly Stitch for inspiring me and challenging me to be creative and inventive. This month I feel like a designer and not just a seamstress.


One of my passions when I travel is to admire the different textiles and styles of clothing and handicrafts made by native peoples. The Cuna Indians have a fascinating dress, from their intricate hand-stitched reverse appliquéd molas that they make into blouses using colorful fabrics, their bright colorful skirts and scarves, to their unique beaded adornments on their legs and arms.


Here is a typical mola, completely hand-sewn, and a piece of traditional fabric and scarve that I still have. I have several other pieces as well, and I plan to make some colorful pillows or tote bags with them in the next 20 years!


Here’s a little bit about the mola made by Cuna (Kuna) Native Americans of Panama:

“The mola forms part of the traditional costume of a Kuna woman, two mola panels being incorporated as front and back panels in a blouse. The full costume traditionally includes a patterned wrapped skirt (saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (musue), arm and leg beads (wini), a gold nose ring (olasu) and earrings in addition to the mola blouse (dulemor).[1]

In Dulegaya, the Kuna’s native language, “mola” means “shirt” or “clothing”. The mola originated with the tradition of Kuna women painting their bodies with geometrical designs, using available natural colours; in later years these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panamá.[2]” from wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mola_(art_form)

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Happy Sewing!


17 thoughts on “Put a Cuna Bird on It!

  1. This is just amazing! Seriously I would never have thought of laying the two fabrics over each other because they are so different, but what a wow!! And the art at the neckline is to die for! Wonderful job!


  2. You should feel like a designer, everything goes together beautifully! I love the gingham under-layer but the appliqué just steals the show. You used it in a perfect and sympathetic manner, well done.


  3. Absolutely beautiful! You should indeed be very proud of yourself. Your dress is not only a lovely make, but it has so much heart in it! I love the layering, and of course, the eye catcher is the embroidery on the bodice. Wow! What a great save, remake, and me-made garment!


  4. Great remake! I’m glad you found a way to wear that embroidery in a way that does it justice. It’s very unique, and the addition of the belt is quite clever!


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