Malvina Carrera learned the skill of traditional pollera dressmaking from her mother and aunt. Typically made from cotton, wool, or linen, the pollera is the national dress of Panama. Worn by women and girls at festivals and celebrations, the pollera is customarily white and adorned with elaborate floral, garland, fruit, vines, or animal patterns. The pollera is comprised of two separate pieces. The loose, boat-neck collared blouse has overlapping layers and is usually decorated with brightly colored ribbons that gather below the collarbones in the front and over the shoulder blades at the back. The long and heavy skirt is comprised of two or three ruffles that gather around the waist, and is trimmed with insertion and edging laces. The excess fabric allows the wearer to lift and display the skirt without exposing her legs.
In Panama, the more expensive polleras are made by several seamstresses working together, sometimes taking many months to complete a single dress. Carerra explains that it is exceptionally rare to find a single individual who can create an authentic hand-made pollera dress. Few written patterns exist for sewing the dress.
In addition to the dress, it is traditional to wear ornamental pearl hair ornaments known as tembleques. Apprentice Angela Webb, Malvina’s daughter, is already a skilled maker of such the delicate head dressings. With this apprenticeship, she takes on the entire complex process of completing a full pollera. Carerra and Webb are closely connected to the Hola Hora Latina festival in Knoxville, and will present their work there in the fall.