A Stitch in Time

How Hawaiian quilters layered secret messages of love, spirit, and quiet rebellion into works of art.

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Cheryl Tsutsumi| Photography by Cecilia Fernández Romero  |  Jason Moore 
Courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts

quiltOver the past eighteen years, Christy Hong has made dozens of hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts and pillows. Amazingly, she doesn’t own a single one. “I’ve given them all away,” she says. “I’ve felt so fortunate to have the good health to do something I really enjoy, and I’ve wanted to share that with people I care about. Giving the quilts and pillows away is an extension of my love for them.”

The forty-five-year-old Makawao resident came into Hawaiian quilting serendipitously. Strolling through Ka‘ahumanu Center one day, she stopped to view an exhibit of quilts by a Hawaiian man named Jesse Davis. They chatted, and Hong felt an instant bond with him and his work.

“We usually think of quilting as something only women do, but here was a man who not only made beautiful quilts, he also designed his own patterns,” she says. “I felt he truly had a special gift.”

The seeds were planted; within a few months, Hong was working on her first Hawaiian quilt, forty-eight by fifty-two inches, with a forest-green panini (cactus) design on an off-white background. She’s had a needle and cloth in her hands as often as she can ever since.

Nearly two centuries ago, Hawaiian women took to quilting with equal zeal. Piecing together patchwork quilts from dressmaking scraps was a thrifty idea taught by the missionaries, along with the Christian concept of modesty. But the loose, voluminous holoku (dresses) missionary wives designed left few usable scraps for patchwork quilts. And to Hawaiian women, it didn’t make sense to cut bolts of cloth into little squares and then stitch them together to make patchworks, so they developed a quilting style all their own.

It’s not clear how or when the Hawaiian quilt as we know it came to be. One theory says that as a wahine (woman) was bleaching a sheet on the ground one afternoon, the branches of a nearby ‘ulu (breadfruit) tree cast their shadow on the material. So captivated was she with that dramatic image, she sketched it on cloth, then appliquéd it onto a sheet.

Another explanation claims the Hawaiians’ striking designs mirrored those imprinted on kapa (bark cloth) with wooden and bamboo stamps.

A third speculates that when Prince Albert was born to King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma in 1858, many women in the kingdom made colorful, individualistic quilts as gifts for him.

“There’s no way to determine which, if any, of these stories is true,” says Lee Wild, a former curator of the Hawaiian quilt exhibit at O‘ahu’s Mission Houses Museum. “They all have been passed down orally; no written documentation has been found.”

One thing is certain: the Hawaiians loved working with woven cloth. It came in an array of colors, and it was much more durable and easier to obtain than the kapa they had been tediously making by hand.

Trees, ferns, fruits, flowers—nature provided endless inspiration for their designs, which were based on the “snowflake” paper cutting they had learned from the missionaries. The appliqués were quilted on material of a complementary hue with tiny stitches (six to twelve per inch) through a cloth backing and a padding made from wool, cotton, domestic animal hair or soft pulu (tree fern fibers).

Rows of stitching about a half-inch apart followed the curves of the pattern, creating an “echo” effect much like the ripple of waves along the shore. This was another innovation—very different from the straight lines of sewing the missionaries had taught. A full-size quilt could have more than 200,000 stitches and take up to a year to complete.

In Contemporary Hawaiian Quilting, author Linda Arthur summarizes the distinctive characteristics of the Hawaiian quilt: “They are generally appliquéd in one piece, and done with two contrasting colors. . . . [They are] often inspired by Hawaiian flowers, environment or a meaningful life-event. Echo quilting is done by hand . . . in rows that radiate out from the appliqué design.”

As time passed, quilting became a way to record important historical events, such as the appearance of Halley’s Comet in Hawaiian skies in 1910, and the installation of the first electric lights in ‘Iolani Palace in 1886. Quilters also honored possessions and emblems of the ali‘i (royalty) in their designs; for example, Queen Kapi‘olani’s fans, Princess Ka‘iulani’s combs, and Kamehameha IV’s crown and kahili (feather standards).

 

In 1893, when Queen Lili‘uokalani was dethroned and the Hawaiian flag lowered, those loyal to the monarchy used quilts as a means of preserving the cherished symbol of their kingdom. Since public display of the flag was considered an act of treason, they incorporated it into quilt designs, which could be exhibited in private.

Each quilt design was given a name. Some, such as “Lilia o ke Awawa” (Lily of the Valley), simply stated the focal point of the piece. Others were poetic and carried kaona or hidden meanings known only to their originator.

The Hawaiians believed quilts embodied the mana (spirit) of their creator, and it was common for patterns and quilts to be destroyed or buried with their maker.

In her book Hawaiian Quilting as a Fine Art, Elizabeth Akana notes, “It was thought that the quilts contained much mana. If one should die and leave so much spirit behind . . . [she] might never be able to achieve total rest after death. . . .  [Many] quilters requested that upon their death so, too, should their work die. Thus many of the old Hawaiian quilts were burned.”

In the Islands’ balmy climate, Hawaiian quilts weren’t needed to provide warmth; instead, they became treasured decorative items, with their makers accorded all the respect and admiration due artists of the highest caliber. Most quilters worked alone, in the privacy of their home, and did not show their quilt to anyone outside their family until it was completed. Doing that proved without a doubt that the design was their original creation. Patterns were considered the sole property of their creators, and the sharing of patterns was seen as the ultimate expression of goodwill.

Soon after Marion Switzer moved from California to Maui in 1978, she began taking Hawaiian quilting classes at Lahaina Civic Center from Wailani Johansen, then deemed one of the masters of the art.

“We hit it off,” recalls the eighty-one-year-old Switzer, a resident of Kïhei. “As a newcomer, I didn’t know much about the Hawaiian culture, and Wailani helped me connect with it through quilting. Many people learned quilting because she was willing to share.”

According to Switzer, Johansen’s grandmother was a wonderful quilter. Johansen was sixteen years old when her grandmother died; it was then that she decided to take up quilting. “She brought out some of her grandmother’s quilts and tried to trace the patterns on brown paper bags,” Switzer says. “An uncle came by, saw what she was doing, and said, ‘Get kerosene and rub it over the paper. The brown bags will be more transparent, and it will be easier for you to trace.’ It was horrible, oily stuff, but that was the way Wailani was able to get her grandmother’s patterns.”

Switzer frequently helped Johansen do demonstrations at hotels throughout Maui. “We would quilt and answer visitors’ questions,” she says. “We’d even let them make a few stitches if they wanted to. Of course, we had to rip them out later. Wailani was very particular about quality; all the stitches had to be precise, perfect. She was a taskmaster in that if your stitches weren’t just right, she would make you take them out and redo them.”

An early riser, Switzer prefers quilting in the morning. “It’s quiet then,” she says, “and there’s good natural light. It’s also a marvelous time to meditate. You’re calm and rested, and all your positive energy can go into your quilt.”

Christy Hong concurs. “If I’m feeling unsettled, tired or cranky, or if I’m struggling with some issue, I never quilt, because I want only good thoughts to go into my work,” she says. “A bit of myself goes into every quilt and pillow, and that’s why I could never sell them. I give them to people that I love dearly.”

Seeing the joy and pleasure on recipients’ faces, says Hong, is “priceless. Knowing that I’ve helped make their lives a little brighter, a little more hopeful, is my greatest reward.”

Purchasing a Hawaiian Quilt

Elizabeth Root, of Kailua, O‘ahu, is a renowned Hawaiian quilt designer who has written ten books on the subject. According to Root, several factors determine the value of a Hawaiian quilt. First and foremost, it should be made in Hawai‘i. One hundred percent cotton fabric is preferred, and stitching should be meticulously done by hand.

“The appliqué should be evenly spaced, with the fabric neatly cut and tucked under,” says Root. “There should be no fraying. The quilting stitches and the spaces between them should be equal, and there should be a minimum of six to eight stitches on top per inch. The quilting rows should be evenly spaced, usually half an inch apart. Anything closer than half an inch flattens the quilted area. Is the batting thick or thin? Thin batting shows off the quilting stitches. Thick batting makes the quilting rows puffy and hides the quilting.”

The finest Hawaiian quilts can cost $4,000 and up. When you find one you like, Root recommends you obtain a certificate of authenticity from the seller that provides the quilter’s name, the quilt’s name and the date it was made.

Root sells her books, quilted coverlets, pillows, wall hangings and other products on her web site, www.quiltshawaii.com.

Creating Your Own

The Maui Quilt Shop (874-8050) carries a wide array of fabrics and patterns, and offers ongoing classes in traditional Hawaiian quilting. Located in Azeka Place, 1280 S. Kihei Road, the shop is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Or visit online at www.mauiquiltshop.com.

Images for this article were reproduced with permission from the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ The Hawaiian Quilt, by Reiko Brandon, and Hawaiian Quilts: Tradition and Transition, by Reiko Brandon and Loretta Woodward. Both books are available at the Academy Shop, and may be ordered online at www.honoluluacademy.org or by calling (808) 532-8703. Selected Hawaiian quilts from the Academy’s textile collection are on view in the museum’s Arts of Hawai‘i gallery.

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