Hawaiian Quilts

Hawaiian quilts are a distinctive type of appliqued bedcover born of both the Hawaiian tradition of making unique bed covers and the Western influence brought to the islands by Christian missionaries’ wives in the nineteenth century.

Hawaiian Quilt

From Tapa Moe To Cotton Fabric

In the Hawaiian Islands, before the arrival of British missionaries in 1820, native islander women made a paper like cloth from pounding the fibers of the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree: the wauke. This cloth called tapa moe was used to make bed coverings, shrouds and lamp wicks. To make coverlets, several layers of the cloth were pounded together, colored with natural dyes and decorated with freehand designs.

Captain Cook arrived in the islands in 1778 and in the following years, explorers, merchants and missionaries arrived, carrying with them the influence of the western designs and they were incorporated into their crafts. Trade with western countries introduced woven fabric, and the designs of the era’s chintzes, calicoes and silks were Hawaiian Quiltimitated on their tapa fabrics. By 1820, Christian missionaries from Britain and their wives arrived, and the highest rulers of the country warmly welcomed them. It is a fact that these wives started teaching the indigenous women sewing. Sewing was introduced in their school curriculum as early as 1830. However, because of the lack of scrap fabrics, since women started wearing loose fitting dresses cut from two lengths of fabric, the muumuu, Hawaiian women didn’t choose to sew patchwork designs, rather to appliqué quilts similar in design to their native decorated tapa. Thus, the Hawaiian quilt was born. By 1870, quilts in a distinct style were being made.

Maybe Hawaiian women adapted the applique styles of medallion quilts to their own culture. In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century, the production of tapa cloth had practically disappeared and women were making a unique style of appliqué quilt, using mostly light colored background cotton fabrics and bright solids. During the nineteenth century, most of these quilts were made out of Turkey red fabric on a white background, since it was easily available to them via maritime trade. As trade increased, more fabric styles were used, even printed fabrics. The climate in Hawaii is not favorable for growing cotton, so all fabric had to be imported.

Patterns From Nature

Hawaiian quilt designs were mostly floral, in the style of a paper snowflake, that is, by folding the fabric in eights and cutting a center design and a border. At first, the designs were rather simple, but as the art of Hawaiian quilting Hawaiian Quiltsdeveloped, the designs became more complex, bolder and covered more background space. Fancy examples include fringed borders. It can be argued that in addition to the local inspiration from nature, during the same period of time in both the USA and England, floral appliqued quilts were also fashionable, thus the quilters in the islands replicated the fashion in their own unique interpretation.

The quilting of these pieces was mostly done in parallel lines that echoed the appliqué pieces’ edges, somewhat resembling waves moving from the center of the quilt outward. Most are quilted with lines approximately half inch apart.

Designs of Hawaiian quilts were a means of self-expression and a very personal choice of the maker. Many of them are inspired by nature, mostly of plant life. Even though they have become the most recognizable mark of this style of quilting, other appliqué designs were also used. Symbols of the islands, of their royalty, legends and personal and historical incidents were also translated into appliqué designs and worked into their quilts.

One of the best-known floral designs incorporated in Hawaiian quilts is the breadfruit, an important food source for islanders. It became a tradition that if a quilter stitches a breadfruit into their quilt first, they will continue making Hawaiian Quiltquilts. Other flowers, native to the islands and introduced species made their way into the appliqué designs such as the ginger, hibiscus, and specially the lily. Many patterns using this flower as inspiration appear in Hawaiian quilting history.

Among historical designs, the use of the flag and depictions of their rulers, coats of arms, crowns and standards became extremely popular. Some of the most unique and intricate quilts are made using these.

Not unlike in western countries, quilt patterns were had names. Some quiltmakers preferred not to share the patterns and guarded them most carefully, while others did, and so patterns evolved as they were shared and copied. As they traveled from island to island, the names changed subsequently and so, a pattern perhaps named after a flower in Maui might be made in Ohau but receive a different name, like perhaps after a pearl or a rainbow. It can be inferred that the older the pattern, the more variations it has suffered and the more name it has been given. It is not always easy to trace a contemporary pattern back to the original source. A curious fact about Hawaiian quilt is that quilt names are very personal to the quilter, and not always named after the subject they depict. In some cases, the names are very personal and kept secret. Some quilters prefer not to have their quilts even photographed.

Hawaiian Quilting Continues

Hawaiian quilting tradition continues and many quilts are still being crafted both using traditional patterns and new inspirations. Historical pieces are very valuable and they are housed and displayed in museums, and there are plenty of quilt guilds and shows in the islands. Patterns for Hawaiian inspired quilts are available for purchase.


For more information on making a quilt click here!


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