Long before Western explorers and missionaries arrived in the Polynesian islands, many traditional crafts existed in Hawaii that set the stage for the development of its unique and wonderful style of quilting.


Courtesy Hawaii State Archives

Courtesy Hawaii State Archives
Photograph: J.J Williams

Among other things, Hawaiians were skilled in the creation of tapa, clothing or bedding made from the bark of the wauke or paper mulberry plant. It is thought that tapa 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.

Historians believe that stitchery must have been introduced to the islands during the earliest decades of European contact. [Captain James Cook was the first to arrive in 1778, and the use of stitchery is documented as early as 1809 (Akana 71).] Western and Chinese cloth became available as trade with the islands opened up, and their designs increasingly influenced tapa decoration. Patchwork quilting techniques were first shown to Hawaiians in 1820 on the arrival of the first American missionaries, who taught sewing and other domestic arts informally in homes and eventually in the school curricula they established.

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 applique quilt. The reasons for this momentous shift are not entirely clear, but one scholar maintains that "the aura of prestige and wealth associated with the less common Western applique quilt [in the mid-1800s] may have influenced the Hawaiians in their selection of a quilt style to emulate." (Hammond 14) Furthermore, methods for cutting an overall design from a single piece of fabric were unique to Polynesia at the time, and another noted writer points out that "To cut new materials into bits to be sewn together (for a patchwork quilt) seemed a futile waste of time. It was quite natural, therefore, that these women, accustomed each to her own design on her tapa beater and her own individual woodblocked patterns, should produce patterns of their own." (Jones 10)

In any event, the striking method of cutting a design from a single piece of fabric and appliqueing it to a contrasting background emerged in the islands sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. One popular story traces the origin of the technique to a single inventor, an unnamed woman who, on noticing a beautiful shadow cast by a nearby tree on a sheet that was hanging to dry, was inspired to create the first quilt design of this type. It is more likely that many contributors and much trial and error was involved in the process, but the traditional tale seems to mythologically sum up one of Hawaiian culture's most marvelous contributions in a more satisfying way!

The evolution of the Hawaiian stitching style is equally interesting. Some suggest that Hawaiians slowly moved away from the traditional parallel, circular or diagonal lines taught by the missionaries to styles more inspired by their traditional crafts (the woven patterns of mats, tapa designs, and different motifs inspired by their natural surroundings). What eventually became the Hawaiian quilting technique — stitching that parallels the inner and outer edges of the applique design in wavelike rows — is characterized as a unique Hawaiian contribution by certain writers (e.g. Wild 13), and connected to the Scandinavian method of echo or outline quilting by others (Root 3).

Hawaiian quilt makers have long borne special feelings towards their creations. Naming a quilt, for example, is a nuanced affair that can incorporate strictly private symbols or meanings and bear no relationship to the visual pattern of the quilt itself. Almost invariably, the quilt and the quilt maker are strongly and permanently connected. Some have been highly vigilant in protecting their designs from copying by others, while in more recent times quilt makers have been freer in granting copying permissions or openly sharing their designs with others as a mark of friendship.


Akana, Elizabeth, "Ku'u Hae Aloha", The Quilt Digest, II (San Francisco: Kiracof & Kile, 1984).

Hammond, Joyce D., Tifaifai and Quilts of Polynesia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986).

Jones, Stella M., Hawaiian Quilts (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1973).

Root, Elizabeth, "A Little Quit History — the Hawaiian Way", ERDHI (www.quiltshawaii.com, 2001).

Wild, Lee S., "Introduction", The Hawaiian Quilt (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1989).



Copyright © 2003-04 Hula Girl Quilts
All Rights Reserved