You may ask: "Sounds like an oxymoron."
1933 Quilt exhibit by
the Mokihana Club at Kauai’s Lihue Parish Hall.
Pictured from left to right: Adelaide Giffard (carting
wool), Milia Kaiiawe, Mrs. Leialoha Kanoho, Mrs.
Ah Kau Luk, Mrs. Malina, and Mrs. Montgomery (quilting).
While at sea level the summer temperatures average
85 degrees and winter temperatures 78 degrees; with
each 1000 foot rise in elevation, temperatures can drop
3.5 degrees. A cozy Hawaiian quilt can be just the ticket
if you live in the mountains.
Hawaiians were making cloth well before the arrival
of explorers, merchants, whalers and missionaries and
Captain James Cook's discovery of the Hawaiian Islands
in 1778. Tapa, a paperlike fabric, had a variety of
uses, including clothing, bed coverings, burial wrappings,
ceremonial flags, streamers for masts of outrigger canoes,
and lamp wicks. This tapa was made from the inner bark
of the paper mulberry plant, wauke. Women used wooden
mallets to pound the strips of bark together to form
sheets of various sizes, textures, and thickness. The
sheets were sewn together using bird bone or hardwood
needles and a thread twisted from bits of natural bark
fiber. They could be colored with natural dyes and decorated
with designs from their natural world. Brushes and bamboo
stamps were used and leaves dipped in pigment could
be pressed on the cloth. Layers were attached to each
other by beating along one edge of the tapa by gluing
them together with diluted poi, a food made from taro
Bedding consisted of multilayered mats piled on the
floor, undecorated inner sheets of the kapa moe, and
topped by a colored or decorated sheet called kilohana.
It is uncertain how the Hawaiian quilts of today evolved,
but it is believed that the missionary influence in
the 1800's was significant. Other possible influences
include the explorers, whalers, fur traders, and merchants
who frequented the Hawaiian shores. Oriental and Russian
ships brought goods to and from China. Ships from Britain,
France and Spain also came to trade. Hawaiians were
fascinated by these visitors and observed them closely,
often incorporating these new ways of life into their
When missionaries from New England arrived in 1820,
the women brought with them their quilts, prized for
their sentimental value rather than for necessity. Missionary
women believed it was important for Hawaiian women to
learn how to sew in the Eruopean style and used patchwork
techniques to illustrate the different sewing skills.
The first Hawaiian quilting circle was held on the decks
of the Thaddeus with the Royal wives of two reigning
chiefs in attendance. Sewing was first taught informally
in homes, and in 1830 was added to the school curriculum.
Western cloth was introduced and calicoes, chintzes,
and Chinese silks became available. Cotton was grown
on Maui and Oahu in the 19th century, but cotton gins
for processing were quite rare. Most cotton fabric was
imported and expensive.
It is uncertain how the unique style of Hawaiian quilting
emerged. Perhaps Hawaiian women thought it odd to cut
cloth into pieces just to sew it together again. Also
Hawaiians were raised to never waste anything they used,
and time was precious to them. Perhaps it was the lack
of scrap materials to make the patchwork quilts. The
cut paper art know as scherenschnitte was brought to
the Hawaiian Islands by German-American missionaries
in the 1860's. A legend tells us that the first design
was inspired by leaf patterns falling on fabric laid
out to dry. In any event, by the 1870's the Hawaiians
developed their own approach to quilt making.
A Hawaiian quilt is usually made of a single large
applique, symetrical and cut from a folded piece of
solid colored cloth and appliqued to a contrasting cloth
that is usually white or cream in color. Originally
the applique cloth was folded into eights and a freehand
design was drawn on the folded fabric. Later in the
19th century, paper and cloth patterns were used. Common
colors used for the applique included red, deep blue,
yellow, orange, pastel green and pastel purple. Some
tried using a light color applique on a dark background.
While the applique patterns are abstract, allowing for
the free expression of the quilter, most patterns are
taken from nature. Like North American Indians, Hawaiians
felt connected to their natural world and were inspired
by their flowers, trees plants, animals, seas, mountains,
and volcanoes. At first, the designs were fairly simple,
but became progressively more complex; and the quilting
styles were largely geometrical as taught by the missionaries.
Eventually their stitching forms more closely resembled
their old craft forms- weaves in lauhala mats, tapa
designs, and designs taken from nature. Echo or contour
stitching, called kuiki lau, was also used to quilt
The Hawaiian breadfruit
The ulu, breadfruit, is often the subject of a quilt
because of its importance in traditional Hawaiian life,
and is the first piece put on a quilt to insure the
quilter will continue to make many additional quilts.
Some believe it will also insure the quilter of adequate
food and a lifetime of prospreity. Common motifs are
flowers such as the iris, orchid, calla lilly, fuchsia,
plumeria, torch ginger, hydrangea, morning glory, carnation,
tuberrose, chrysanthemum, pineapple, and hibiscus. Vines,
leaves, and sea animals also provide patterns for appliques,
as did designs representing important winds and rains.
Quilts were often named in memory of loved ones. Naming
a quilt was considered a personal matter, and some names
had totally private meanings, kaona. One quilt that
is highly prized is the Kuu Hae Aoha , My Beloved Flag.
It pictures the flag of the Hawaiian kingdom, and may
date back to 1843 serving as a reminder of a kingdom
that ended in 1893.
Historically Hawaiian quilts were not sold. They were
usually made for a specific purpose including gifts
for friends or family members, to commemorate an event,
to honor someone, for personal fulfillment, to be a
shroud, to express patriotism, or to express aloha.
Hawaiian quiltmaking has also been shrouded in mystery,
taboos, and superstition. Occasionally a quiltmaker
who becomes so connected with her quilt would ask that
the quilt be destroyed or buried with her because of
fear her spirit may be forced to wander after death.
Some would sleep with the quilt for one night before
giving it to the person for whom it was made. It has
been said that when a person is ill, if they sleep with
a quilt, all the love from that quilt will heal them.
Human figures should never appear on a quilt because
that figure will walk and visit you at night. Some of
these superstitions have resulted in many old quilts
being destroyed and patterns being strictly guarded.
Fortunately many of these works of art remain for us
to enjoy today and patterns are available to modern
quilters. The Hawaiian Quilt Research Project celebrates
Hawaii's heritage in quilts, and quilt days are held
throughout the islands. Over 900 Hawaiian quilts made
in Hawaii before 1959 have been registered.
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