Thursday, September 7, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 2: "Hawaiian" quilts

Hawaiian quiltmaking, particularly the promotion and commodification of a singular, regional style, is the stuff of legends. 

If you pick up most any book about Hawaiian quiltmaking, there will be lots of quilts made in a similar manner. They are applique quilts, predominately solid fabrics, two-color, with large, symmetrical paper cut botanical snowflake designs and echo quilting.


Hawaiian quiltmaking, particularly the promotion and commodification of a singular, regional style, is the stuff of legends. If it sounds vaguely familiar, think back to "part 1" - the promotion and commodification of a singular style, improvisation, as the "African-American" style of quiltmaking. To read more on that topic, click here.
Miller family quilt, c. 1930, Kailua, Hawaii
If you travel to Hawaii, you will see appliqué quilts and pillows for sale in gift shops. A lot of those objects are made outside of Hawaii, in places such as the Philippines, and are made with the sole intent of satisfying the tourist market. In that regard, a lot of "Hawaiian" quilts are not even Hawaiian anymore.

"Hawaiian" style quilt made in the Philippines
The symmetrical, botanical designs are directly related to scherenschnitte patchwork found in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas around the time missionaries were present in Hawaii.

block from an 1850s quilt made in West Virginia
In light of the general acceptance of the idea that "Hawaiian" quilts are echo-quilted applique quilts, it is intriguing to discover a separate tradition of purely Hawaiian quilts-- Hawaiian scrap quilts.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1960
Scrap quilts cleverly make use of cutaway scraps from the Hawaiian garment industry, also the source of aloha shirts and muumuus.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1960

The quilts represent more than a spin-off on mainland trends. Consistently, cloth foundation piecing such as string piecing appears in the tops. A large number of the scrap quilts are backed but have no batting. Most are not tied or quilted.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970

Some are bedspreads, with an edge finish but no backing. All of them are time capsules of the Hawaiian garment industry, beautifully presenting and preserving the scrap fabrics. They are vibrant, and combine an unlimited number of hot colors in a delightfully carefree way.

Hawaiian scrap quilt top, c. 1970
Geometric motifs appear and reappear, such as alternating, string-pieced blocks forming squares on point, or diamonds. The narrow strips of fabric required to create these designs are exactly the type of scraps the garment industry would produce as a byproduct. The repeating geometric motifs are reminiscent of those seen on a much smaller scale in kapa cloth.
Hawaiian scrap quilt top, c. 1970
Crazy patchwork and crazy blocks frequently surface, as well. The process of making these quilts offers a reasonable way to use irregular scraps to create lively but cohesive designs.

Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
Hawaiian scrap quilts are rooted in Hawaiian history, perhaps to a greater degree than the applique quilts. In addition to the geometric repeats and their relationship with kapa cloth, the crazy, cloth foundation pieced patchwork is connected to a royal object called The Queen's Quilt.

Cooke Family Quilt, c. 1890, Hawaii
The Queen's Quilt was started in 1895 by Queen Liliuokalani and her attendants while she was imprisoned at Iolani Palace during the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. This quilt, also the stuff of legends, disappeared for many years following Liliuokalani's death in 1917, but its story was passed down through the generations.


It is unclear where Liliuokalani got her inspiration to make a crazy quilt, but recently another Victorian era crazy quilt surfaced, and it belonged to the Cooke Family, the educators of young Liliuokalani at the Chiefs' Children's School. The Cooke Family Quilt raises questions and could possibly provide answers regarding where Liliuokalani could have learned about crazy quilts.
Hawaiian scrap quilt, c. 1970
The discovery of Hawaiian scrap quilts, both as distinct regional tradition and as an oeuvre of collectible, leads to a greater understanding of Hawaiian quilting heritage and Hawaiian culture. Tourism was certainly a big factor, and the repeating geometric elements seen in kapa cloth, foundation-pieced crazy patchwork seen in The Queen's Quilt and fabrics seen in the garments show the strong connection to Hawaiian history.

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