Those Beautiful Hawaiian Quilts

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Unless you’re into quilting as an avocation, it’s likely that quilts aren’t a large part of your consciousness. Here in the islands, a Hawaiian quilt is considered a treasure, whether you’ve received one as a gift, bought one or made one yourself.

Long before the first Westerners reached the islands, the Hawaiian people were making a fabric called “kapa” from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. Kapa was pounded into layers and sewn with bone needles and natural fiber threads. The yield was clothing, bedding and canoe sails. The resulting fabric usually was dyed and decorated with elaborate patterns.

Quilts, though they may not occupy a prominent place in your thoughts unless you’re an avid quilter, hold a special significance in the heart of Hawaii. In the aloha spirit of these islands, a Hawaiian quilt is cherished whether it’s received as a heartfelt gift, purchased as a keepsake, or painstakingly crafted with love.

Long before the arrival of Westerners on these pristine shores, the native Hawaiian people were skilled artisans in their own right. They ingeniously created a fabric called “kapa” using the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. This kapa was meticulously pounded into layers and artfully sewn together with bone needles and threads made from natural fibers. The resulting textile served a multitude of purposes, from clothing to bedding to sails for their canoes. What set it apart was the exquisite craftsmanship – often dyed in vibrant hues and adorned with intricate patterns.

When Christian missionaries introduced woven fabrics and traditional piecework quilting to Hawaii, the local artisans quickly embraced the new materials and techniques. However, they added their own unique twist to the craft. Instead of the Western practice of cutting and reassembling fabric pieces, Hawaiians retained their cultural identity by cutting intricate designs from solid pieces of cloth and appliquéing them onto a fabric background, creating a decorative quilt top. Between this top and an unadorned backing, a layer of batting made from wool, cotton, or natural fibers was added, and the three layers were meticulously stitched together.

The origins of Hawaiian quilt designs are thought to be inspired by the natural world around them. Patterns resembling leaves falling on fabric laid out to dry and other elements of nature found their way into these designs. More than mere artistic expression, these quilts were symbols of love and were typically given as heartfelt gifts.

Hawaiian quilts on display.
Hawaiian quilts on display.

During the later years of the Hawaiian monarchy, particularly after Queen Liliuokalani’s deposition in 1893, quilt patterns began incorporating themes of royalty (“Ali‘i”) and the grandeur of royal palaces. These quilts became not only a means of artistic expression but also a powerful symbol of Hawaiian identity. In contemporary times, it is considered a mark of respect for non-Hawaiians to seek permission from members of the Hawaiian community before using these sacred patterns.

Quilting has now earned a respected place in the revival of traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts. Skilled quilters are not only preserving the rich heritage of the past but also innovating with new and original designs.

For visitors to Hawaii, encountering Hawaiian quilts is almost inevitable. They grace the shelves of shops, adorn hotel lobbies, and often can be found in private homes. While it’s tempting to covet these works of art, they can be cumbersome to transport back home. Fortunately, several companies offer shipping services to make it easier for you to bring a piece of Hawaiian culture with you. Here’s an approximate price range for quilts of various sizes and purposes:

  • Bedspread: Around $650
  • Large Wall Hanging: Approximately $160
  • Small Wall Hanging: Around $30
  • Baby Quilt: Approximately $65
  • Table Runner: Around $50

If you’re eager to immerse yourself in the art of quilt-making while in Hawaii, simply inquire with your Hawaii-Aloha Travel specialist. They can guide you towards opportunities to learn and create your very own piece of Hawaiian quilt artistry.

When the missionaries brought woven fabrics and piecework quilts to Hawaii, the Hawaiians quickly adopted their sewing techniques and materials – but not their methods.

Rather than cut fabrics into bits and then resew them, the Hawaiians’ designs were cut from solid pieces of cloth and appliqued to a fabric background forming a decorative top. Batting of wool, cotton, or natural fibers was placed between this top and an undecorated backing. The three layers were then stitched together.

It’s presumed that the first Hawaiian quilt designs were inspired by leaf patterns falling on fabric laid out to dry and other designs found in nature. The quilts weren’t sold; they were gifts of love.

During the latter years of the monarchy and particularly after Queen Liliuokalani was deposed in 1893, quilt patterns incorporating themes of royalty, “Ali‘i,” and of the royal palaces became symbols of Hawaiian identity. Today it’s considered a matter of courtesy for non-Hawaiians to request permission from members of the Hawaiian community before using those particular patterns.

Quilting has gained a respected place in the resurgence of traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts. Now quilters are passing on their knowledge of the past and creating new designs.

Hawaii’s visitors usually come across Hawaiian quilts – as they browse shops, see them in hotel lobbies and some rooms, or encounter them in private homes. They are easy to covet, but are bulky when it comes to getting them back home. Several companies will ship your choices to you. For your guidance, here’s what you can expect to pay for quilts of various sizes for various uses:

  • Bedspread: $ 650
  • Large Wall Hanging: $ 160
  • Small Wall Hanging: $ 30
  • Baby Quilt: $ 65
  • Table Runner: $ 50

It’s easy to take quilt making lessons while you’re here. Just ask your Hawaii-Aloha Travel specialist.