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A Hawaiian quilt, first seen, is rarely forgotten. Not only does it possess a strikingly beautiful pattern, but it has an unexplainable quality which originates more from the spirit of the design than from the stitches created by the quilter's hand.
Hawaiian quilting differs from that which evolved in other parts of the world. Its unique method of design, with its intricate quilting, has always been and continues to be more a form of artistic expression than a well-designed utilitarian necessity.
Hawaii's mild climate allowed this expression to be created in leisurely fashion, with far more time available for detailed applique and quilting than was possible in colder climes. The Hawaiians were not dependent upon the finishing of a quilt to ensure a warm night's rest during the winter months. This was fortunate, as a full-sized Hawaiian quilt, even for the experienced, takes about a year of continuous stitching to complete.
Four methods of constructing and designing a quilt, when combined, make the Hawaiian quilting process unique. These include the use of whole pieces of fabric for the applique 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 appliquéd design throughout the entire quilt.
The actual emergence of this quilting style is pure speculation, as, to date, no information has been found to substantiate any one theory. However, many things in the life-style of the "pre-missionary" Hawaiians helped to evolve the unique methods used in the Hawaiian quilt.
First, the Hawaiian women were already skilled in making bedding and everyday clothing from tapa, a felted "fabric" made from the fibers of a native plant. The tapa was beaten, rather than cut, to the proper size for bedding and wraparound garments. The early whaling and trading ships brought the skills of sewing and the basic woven fabrics to the Hawaiians. They, in turn, created garments similar to the present-day muumuu. These were cut using the whole piece of fabric. There were no scraps left to be saved for the patchwork quilts of the style taught by the American missionaries upon their arrival in the early 1800s. As the cutting up of a large piece of fabric into little pieces which were then to be sewn back together again was illogical to the Hawaiian women, they soon created their own style of cutting the applique all at once from a whole piece of fabric.
Second, the "snowflake" art of paper cutting taught by the missionaries probably inspired the cutting method of the appliquéd designs the Hawaiian women used on their quilts. While they may have never related to the term "snowflake," the designs that resulted from the paper cutting resembled those used in the dye-stamped designs on their tapas. They quickly adopted the method, first folding their design fabric into eighths (or quarters) and then cutting the entire applique at one time, ensuring a balanced, symmetrical design.
Third, the use of usually only two colors—one for the design applique and a contrasting one for the background—probably arose from the initial unavailability of a selection of colored fabrics. Many of the early quilts were a combination of red and white, the two colors most commonly available. The practice of using dual colors prevailed, however, even after the selection of fabrics expanded. Occasionally a third or fourth color was used to accent a specific flower or part of the design. Sometimes two tones of the same color were used, or a small print and a solid color. But traditionally, throughout the years, the original concept of two contrasting colors has remained, accentuating the bold designs with striking clarity.
Fourth, the method of quilting turned from the geometric designs taught and practiced at the missionary schools, to the method of echo or outline quilting. The quilts first seen by the Hawaiians were, quite probably, the finest in the collections brought by the early missionaries. Many of these quilts may have contained examples of quilting techniques and patterns, such as echo quilting, that were far too intricate and time-consuming for the majority of quilts needed to ward off cold New England winters. While the Hawaiians, because of their own weaving abilities with native materials, were able to relate to the geometric patterns of traditional American quilting, the echo quilting appealed to their natural sense of grace and motion. The undulating lines following the contour of the appliquéd design looked like the waves and tides surrounding their islands. The Hawaiian women, being poetic and in touch with nature, adopted this quilting method, perhaps originally as being a feeling of Hawaii to be incorporated into their quilts rather than as merely a beautiful quilting technique. Feelings were very much a part of the designs of the Hawaiian quilt. The Hawaiians, born with a special relationship to the land and its products, and with a natural gracefulness, brought these qualities to the designs of their quilts.
The ability to create a beautiful, well-balanced design was considered a true gift and was a talent that was carefully guarded. 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. It has been suggested that, because of this belief, many of the earlier quilts made by the Hawaiian women had no openings in the central portion of the design. This was so that the part of their spirit that was considered a part of the quilt would not be able to wander. The belief also caused many quilts to be burned upon the death of their creators, thus allowing their spirits to pass on with them in their entirety.
The humid climate and salt air claimed many more of the early quilts. Of those remaining, many are stored away in family chests, carefully passed down from generation to generation, without being shown to people outside the immediate family. The art of making the Hawaiian quilt was considered so precious that it has only been in the last decade that the techniques have been openly shared. Now, in an attempt to perpetuate the art, its techniques are being taught, ensuring it its rightful place in the world of quilting, with full credit to the ingenuity and creativity of the Hawaiian people.
To give a quilt was indeed to give of one's self, and so quilts were only given to close relatives and friends. The design of each quilt was guarded, the work being done in the privacy of the quilter's home and not shown until the quilt was completed. Subtle songs were created and sung in public to chastise and embarrass an unauthorized "borrower" of a pattern. Designs were often drawn directly onto the folded fabric to be cut, thus eliminating patterns that could be copied. Authorized use of a design usually meant permission granted to a friend or relative to take her own pattern directly from the finished quilt. This inaccurate method of copying, the natural creativity that prompted spontaneous "improvements" and the use of different colors caused many patterns having the same name to look very different. As long as the basic outline of the original design was recognizable, the quilt kept the original name. It took a skilled designer to alter this outline and a brave one to then rename the pattern.
Names of quilts were often deceptive. Those using natural leaves or flowers, scenes, events or objects were easily defined, but because many quilts were the result of an emotional or highly personal event in the quilter's life, many of the patterns bore little or no resemblance to the names. In addition, the literal English translation of the Hawaiian name often changed the connotations of words, obscuring the sentiment. Sometimes the real meaning of a design that had great personal significance was known only to the designer. Giving an outsider a name for the design quite different from the real meaning allowed her to keep her true feelings a secret. Or, if the subject touched on the risque, it was well hidden by double meanings and complicated translation.
Quilting also provided a way to record history. Many an event—the birth of a king, the finding of pearls in Hawaiian waters, the first gaslights in the royal palace—was put into a design and lovingly quilted by the Hawaiian women. Many of these quilts were then presented as gifts to the ruling monarch; some, fortunately, remain in collections today.
Probably the most revered pattern, which was designed and quilted in many ways, was "My Beloved Flag." With the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, the Hawaiian flag was lowered. The Hawaiian people, fearing that they would never see their flag again, put its design, often combined with other symbols of royalty, into a pattern that was quilted and kept out of sight in many homes. The more daring made reversible quilts and canopies for their beds—on one side a traditional Hawaiian pattern and on the other, boldly quilted, their Hawaiian flag.
Hence, the development of Hawaiian quilting has been more than the amassing of a collection of strikingly beautiful designs. On the surface it has been the evolution of an entirely unique method of quilting. Underlying it is the embodiment of the spirit of a people rich in creativity and sensitivity, who, through this art form, shared not only their history and personal observations, but their feelings and sentiments during a time in their lives filled with extraordinary change and emotion.
Excerpted from Hawaiian Quilting by Elizabeth Root. Copyright © 1989 Elizabeth Root. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted September 30, 2011