Historic Hawaiian Quilts: Early Quilts & Quilters

Recognized the world over for their bright colors and bold graphic designs, Hawaiian appliqué quilts reflect the lush sub-tropical flora of the islands where they were born. The story of how this uniquely Hawaiian art form evolved over a century and a half is one of adaptation and change.
American Protestant missionaries are credited with introducing the art of quilting in the Sandwich Islands. Lucy Thurston, who arrived with the Pioneer Company of missionaries in 1820, reminisced in later years about the shipboard visit of four Hawaiian chiefesses (ali‘i). Queen Kalakua brought “a web of white cambric” and asked the missionary women to make a dress in the latest fashion and to finish it in time for her to wear when the ship arrived at Kailua-Kona where the king and his court resided. Mrs. Thurston commented:
The first sewing circle was formed that the sun ever looked down upon in His Hawaiian realm. Kalakua, queen dowager, 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 to them.[i]
Unfortunately, it is not clear whether “calico patchwork” meant appliqué or piecing. At the time, patchwork might have referred to cut-chintz appliqué work where printed designs cut from one fabric were appliquéd onto another—a technique later referred to as Broderie Perse. The term also described the English style of piecing known as “Honeycomb, hexagon, or mosaic patchwork.” Cut fabric was basted over square or hexagonal paper templates and joined in “over and over” stitches placed “neatly over the edge.[ii]

The English style of piecing gradually gave way to a distinctly American style where quarter-inch seams were now joined with a simple running stitch. [iii] This, most likely, is the type of plain sewing taught in the mission sewing schools of the 1830s and 1840s. The main goal was to teach clothing construction. Students also learned simple piecing techniques for quilting.

Hawaiian Appliqué
Appliqué quilting most likely reached the Hawaiian Islands in the form of autograph album quilts, which became popular in America between 1840 and 1860. This appliquéd block format was particularly popular for friendship quilts, and may have been sent as gifts to missionaries, made and signed by family, friends, or church groups.
In 1840, an appliqué quilt top arrived in a missionary box containing clothing and other items donated by a churchwomen’s group in New England. The following year, Kameo, a young Hawaiian student at the Wailuku Female Seminary on Maui, wrote to the students at Mrs. Coan’s school on the island of Hawaii saying, “We are writing to you regarding something we have done recently. We have made an appliqué quilt . . .. It is with deep affection that we have made it and thus we give it with these good intentions.[iv]
By 1870, it is clear that the Hawaiian appliqué quilt, as we know it was in full flower. When Isabella Bird visited the Hawaiian Islands, she saw and admired Hawaiian quilts in school dormitories, in the grass houses (hale pili) of the commoners (makaainana), and the western-style houses of the Hawaiian chiefly class (alii).
At an industrial training school for girls in Lahaina on the island of Maui, for instance, Miss Bird said, “the beds were covered with those brilliant-coloured quilts in which the natives delight, and in which they exercise considerable ingenuity as well as individuality of taste.[v]
In describing a visit to a widow named Honolulu, with whom she stayed in Laupahoehoe on the Big Island, there is no mistaking that Isabella Bird is describing a Hawaiian appliqué quilt:
I was delighted to see a four-post bed, with mosquito bars, and a clean pulu mattrass [sic], with a linen sheet over it, covered with a beautiful quilt with a quaint arabesque pattern on a white ground running round it, and a wreath of green leaves in the centre. The native women exercise the utmost ingenuity in the patterns and colours of these quilts. Some of them are quite works of art.[vi]
Hawaiian quilters continued to make pieced quilts well into the twentieth century.[vii] These served as the everyday quilts while the Hawaiian appliqué quilts often were preserved as “best quilts” and, along with the cherished Hawaiian flag quilts, brought out and placed on beds only for special occasions.
Hawaiian Flag Quilts 
The traditional Hawaiian flag quilt combined both appliqué and complex-piecing techniques, suggesting only experienced quilters made them. These quilts most likely date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, although design sources span the entire monarchy period. Flag quilts predate the overthrow (1893) and annexation (1898) of the Hawaiian kingdom although they apparently were made in greater numbers during the years of political turmoil. As one writer recalled:
Ever since the overthrow a great wave of patriotism had filled the hearts of the Hawaiians. The streets were filled with men wearing hatbands inscribed Aloha Aina (Love of Country). Hawaiian women busied themselves making flag-patterned bed quilts . . ..[viii]
Others followed the example of Victoria Ward who attached a Hawaiian flag to the canopy of her four-poster bed and “vowed to die under the flag of her country.[ix]
Embroidered Quilts 
Hawaiian quilters also kept up with the latest American fashions in needlework and embroidery. They made silk crazy quilts, when popular in the 1880s and 1890s, and cotton embroidered “redwork” quilts when in fashion in the 1890s through the 1920s.
The crazy quilts, conventionally made in kaleidoscopic color with exquisite embroidery anchoring the irregularly shaped fabrics to a muslin substrate, are recognizably “Hawaiian” only through details in design. The best-known example is the Queen’s Quilt, or Imprisonment Quilt, which was begun by Liliuokalani and her Ladies-in-Waiting during the Queen’s ten-month incarceration at Iolani Palace following her abdication in January 1893.[x]
The embroidered cotton quilts, on the other hand, are uniquely Hawaiian in design. Mainland quilters, using colorfast Turkey red thread, embroidered a variety of designs each of which was stamped onto a cotton fabric square. They then joined the squares and quilted them to make simple, washable bed coverings for everyday use.
Hawaiian quilters, however, apparently never worked in the block format. They selected only one or two related motifs and created embroidered patterns across a wholecloth surface echoing the rhythms of their appliqué quilt designs.
The Colonial Revival 
Before the turn of the century, Hawaiian quilts tended to be made and used only within the Hawaiian community. Hawaiian quilts began to reach a wider audience in the 1920s and 1930s, when appliqué quilts came back into fashion for home decorating. Newspapers began carrying syndicated pattern series by well-known quilt designers such as Nancy Page (Florence LaGanke) and Ruby Short McKim.
In 1931, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran their first series featuring the Nancy Page Magic Vine appliqué quilt. When the series ended, the newspaper polled its readers to see if they were interested in exhibiting their completed quilts. The response was overwhelming, resulting in a one-day quilt show. Quilts of every description were exhibited, including two completed Magic Vine quilts.[xi]
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin co-sponsored quilt shows with the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Cash prizes and ribbons were awarded, with a grand prize for the most original Hawaiian quilt design and best workmanship.[xii]
Hawaiian Quilting Classes and Patterns 
The desire for Hawaiian quilts also fueled a demand for quilting classes and patterns. Teachers like Hannah Kuumililani Cummings Baker (1906-1981) and Mealii Namahoe Richardson Kalama (1909-1992) were pivotal in meeting this need. Their classes drew students from all ethnic groups.[xiii]
Hannah Baker made it her mission to share her large pattern collection. She encouraged students to trace as many as they liked. Baker once wryly observed, “We’ve hung onto our quilt patterns and we’ve given away our land. We should have done the opposite. If we had, quilting wouldn’t be such a dying art, and we’d all be walking around with rent receipt books today.[xiv] Baker taught quilting for more than thirty years throughout the islands as well as on the mainland.
Mealii Kalama’s greatest strength as a quilter lay in her ability to design, which she believed was a God-given talent. She encouraged her students to create their own designs and she destroyed most of her own patterns in order to encourage people to learn.[xv] “No two quilts are alike. That is the culture,” she said.
The Quilt As Art 
When the exhibit, Abstract Design in American Quilts, opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1971 the show was credited with forever changing the art world’s view of quilting. For the first time, quilts were presented as art rather than craft, and discussed in terms of line and design.[xvi] Quilt historians point to this seminal exhibit as marking the beginning of the second great quilt revival of the twentieth century.
Another New Yorker, Laurence S. Rockefeller, in effect, anticipated this change in perception of quilts when he commissioned thirty Hawaiian quilts for his Pacific and Oriental Art Collection in 1964. The eight-foot square “Hawaiian quilt tapestries” formed an integral part of the architectural design as they hung along the open-air corridors of his new luxury resort, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the island of Hawaii.[xvii]
The master quilter who accomplished the task was Mealii Kalama. Given only six months in which to complete the project, she created thirty original designs, enlisting the help of four other quilters who sang with her in the Kawaiahao church choir to do the appliqué, and she did the quilting. Each quilt took about 1,500 hours to complete, representing “60 million needle-perfect stitches.[xviii]
The Current Quilt Revival 
Interestingly, on the eve of the current quilt revival, not only Hannah Baker thought quiltmaking in Hawaii was fading away. Even at the Kawaiahao Church exhibit opening for the Maunakea Beach Hotel quilts, the minister’s wife observed, “Quiltmaking is a dying art . . .. The older women are giving up quilting and the middle-aged and younger women don’t have the time anymore.[xix]
A decade later, Mealii Kalama worried that the current groups of quilting students “generally expect only personal enrichment. They do not seek a career. They do not expect to teach folk art, but to enjoy it. Thus, and slowly, quiltmaking dies.[xx] Yet, as a new century begins, the art of Hawaiian quilting is still vibrantly alive, its artists and teachers traveling and exhibiting around the world.
End Notes
[i]Lucy G. Thurston, Life and Times of Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston, 3rd edition (Honolulu: The Friend, 1934), 32.
[ii]Gunn, “Template Quilt Construction and Its Offshoots, From Godey’s Lady’s Book To Mountain Mist,” in Pieced By Mother Symposium Papers (Lewisburg, PA: The Oral Traditions Project, 1988), 69, 70.
[iii]Lynne Z. Bassett and Jack Larkin, Northern Comfort, New England’s Early Quilts, 1780-1850 (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998), 27.
[iv] Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society (HMCS), Missionary Letters, Wailuku, Sept. 17, 1841. Translation from the Hawaiian by Carol Silva, Hawaii State Archives.
[v] Isabella Bird, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (London: Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1875; reprint, New York: KPI, 1986), 251, 254.
[vi]Ibid., 159-60. Pulu is defined as “A soft, glossy, yellow wool on the base of tree-fern leaf stalks (Cibotium spp.). It was used to stuff mattresses and pillows and at one time was exported to California,” in Hawaiian Dictionary, 354.
[vii]Mary Kawena Pukui, Interview with Mary Kawena Pukui and Joe Feher (Honolulu: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 1960), sound cassette.
[viii]Bernice Piilani Irwin, I Knew Queen Liliuokalani (Honolulu: South Sea Sales, 1960), 46.
[ix] Frank Ward Hustace III, Victoria Ward and Her Family (Honolulu: Victoria Ward, Limited, 2000), 63.
[x] Hackler, Rhoda E.A. and Loretta G.H. Woodard. The Queen’s Quilt.(Honolulu: The Friends of Iolani Palace, 2004); Loretta G. Woodard, “Quilts.” In Finding Paradise, Island Art in Private Collections, ed. Don Severson and Mike Horikawa. (Honolulu: The Honolulu Academy of Arts and The University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 248-250.
[xii] Margaret H. Kai, “Design you own Hawaiian quilt!,” Hawaii Farm and Home (July 1943): 30-31.
[xiii]“Quilting—flowering of Hawaiian craft art,” Cultural Climate (October 1977): 7.
[xiv] Lois Taylor, “Hawaiians Kept the Quilt and Gave Away the Land,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3. October 1970, p. 46.
[xv] “Stitches of Love: The Hawaiian Quilting Legacy of Mealii Kalama,” exhibit brochure for the Mission Houses Museum’s 16th Annual Hawaiian Quilt Exhibit, June 11-July 31, 1994 (Honolulu: Mission Houses Museum 1994).
[xvi] Jonathan Holstein, Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition (Louisville: The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1991).
[xvii]“Mauna Kea Hotel Tapestries Ready,” Honolulu Advertiser, 31 May 1965, Sec. C, p. 4. In 1974, the then new Maui Surf Hotel at Kaanapali, Maui also commissioned Mealii Kalama to make eight Hawaiian quilts for a new show lounge. Cultural Climate (October 1997): 7.
[xviii]Helen Squire, “Hawaiian Quilt Travelogue,” Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine (May 1978): 9. A number of these quilts are still on display although they are now hanging along enclosed corridors on the upper floors.
[xix] Cynthia Eyre, “Hawaii Date Book,” Honolulu Advertiser, ca. 30 May 1965.
[xx]Cultural Climate (October 1977): 7.

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