"Quilts in Hawaii?" You may ask:

"Sounds like an oxymoron."

by K.A.M.

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). photp credit: William Junokichi Senda

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 root.

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.

photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 own.

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 piece.

The Hawaiian breadfruit pattern.

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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