Long before Western explorers and missionaries arrived in the Polynesian islands, many traditional crafts existed in Hawai‘i that set the stage for the development of its unique style of quilting.
Among other things, Hawaiians were skilled in the creation of kapa (tapa,) clothing or bedding made from the bark of the wauke (paper mulberry) plant.
It is thought that kapa technique – involving the pounding together of strips of bark to form sheets of different textures, which are then colorfully decorated by pen with various dyes – provided the foundation upon which Hawaiian quilting was eventually built.
The use of stitchery in Hawai‘i is documented as early as 1809. After contact, Western and Chinese cloth and silk became available as trade with the islands opened up. Cotton was grown on Maui and O‘ahu in the 19th century, but cotton gins for processing were quite rare.
When missionaries from New England arrived in 1820, the missionary women brought with them their quilts (mostly as keepsakes.) Missionary women helped Hawaiian women to learn to sew in the European style.
“One of the former queens had before requested that our wihenes would make her a gown like their own, was told that it was the Lord’s day, and that they would make it tomorrow.” (April 2, 1820, Thaddeus Journal)
The next day, the first Hawaiian sewing circle was held on the decks of the Thaddeus, “Kalakua brought a web of white cambric to have a dress made for herself in the fashion of our ladies, and was very particular in her wish to have it finished while sailing along the western side of the island, before reaching the king.”
“Monday morning April 3d (1820,) the first sewing circle was formed that the sun ever looked down upon in the Hawaiian realm. Kalakua was directress. She requested all the seven white ladies to take seats with them on mats, on the deck of the Thaddeus.”
“Mrs Holman and Mrs Ruggles were executive officers to ply the scissors and prepare the work … The four native women of distinction were furnished with calico patchwork to sew – a new employment for them.”
“The dress was made in the fashion of 1819. The length of the skirt accorded with Brigham Young’s rule to his Mormon damsels, – have it come down to the tops of the shoes. But in the queen’s case, where the shoes were wanting, the bare feet cropped out very prominently.” (Lucy Thurston, part of the Pioneer Company)
“These were made in the style then prevailing, a very deep yoke, with a short bodice, belted at the waist, and a full skirt. The chiefess was a huge woman, and a belt was found to be impracticable, so the ladles instead gathered the loose skirt on to the yoke.”
“The native women were so delighted with the now garb, so much more convenient than their own, that they at once gave It the name holoku, expressive of the fact that in it they had perfect freedom of motion.”
“The holoku is exactly like the ‘Mother Hubbard gown’ that had such a painful popularity in our country some years ago. It is, to-day, the regulation costume of the Hawaiian women.”
“They wear it at church and on shopping expeditions, in the park and on state occasions, and, this delightful climate permitting such scantiness of attire, it is not an uncommon thing to meet upon Fort street an old woman of the poorer class whose holoku is her sole garment.” (San Francisco Call, March 19, 1893)
“All the women wore the native dress, the sack or holoku, many of which were black, blue, green, or bright rose color, some were bright yellow, a few were pure white, and others were a mixture of orange and scarlet.” Isabella Bird 1894
“At first the holoku, which is only a full, yoke nightgown, is not attractive, but I admire it heartily now, and the sagacity of those who devised it.”
“It conceals awkwardness, and befits grace of movement; it is fit for the climate, is equally adapted for walking and riding, and has that general appropriateness which is desirable in costume.” (Isabella Bird, 1894)
Quilting in Hawai‘i back in 1820s was done in the patchwork style. The Hawaiian women tediously cut the material into the patchwork squares and sewed them back together as they were taught by the missionaries.
It is theorized that Hawaiian women gradually began incorporating elements of tapa design into patchwork quilts, and soon discarded the patchwork approach altogether in favor of the appliqué quilt.
A traditional Hawaiian quilt is a bed sized quilt that is completely an appliquéd design. The design is cut out of one square piece of fabric with a repeat of 8.
The appliqué fabric is folded in half, or three times and all 8 layers are cut out at the same time, then opened out, like a “snowflake”. Usually the designs are symbolic of the flowers, trees or places in Hawai‘i.
The designing of a quilt was a very personal thing. Women occasionally shared their designs with a special friend or relative, but copying a quilt without permission was very much frowned upon.
Many believed that the spirit of the person creating and stitching the quilt became an integral part of the finished work, giving it an added dimension – a sense of life.
Each quilt was given a name, often reflecting the inspiration behind the design. These intriguing quilts have survived as they were only used for special occasions and then passed on from generation to generation.
Four methods of constructing and designing a quilt, when combined, make the Hawaiian quilting process unique:
- use of whole pieces of fabric for the appliqué and background;
- the “snowflake” method of cutting the design all at one time;
- the use of usually only two colors of fabric; and
- the echo, or outline style of quilting which follows the contour of the applied design throughout the entire quilt
The image shows my mother with quilts she made for her grandchildren; they are made in the patchwork tradition her great-great grandmother (Sybil Bingham) and the other missionary wives used in 1820 when teaching sewing aboard the Thaddeus and later. (I also added to the album our recent addition, a quilt bed cover at our Colorado house.)