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Hawaiian Quilts

If you’ve mastered the usual American traditional quilting patterns and you’re looking to try something different, why not try Hawaiian quilting? This gorgeous tradition began two hundred years ago, when missionaries brought Western quilting techniques and fabrics to the Hawaiian Islands. Prior to that, Hawaiians made all of their textiles from Tapa, a woven cloth made from plant fiber. While unique with benefits to the local climate, Tapa isn’t great for quilting.

Hawaiian quilts are generally made from solid-colored fabrics, with radial designs cut from single pieces of fabric–like snowflakes. There are two types of traditional quilts–large patterns that occupy the whole quilt top, and smaller, single-block motifs that present a much more manageable challenge.

The Challenge

Why would they be a challenge? Well, traditional Hawaiian quilting is hand-quilting. A lot of it. Because Hawaiian quilts are designed featuring local plants and animals, they feature natural motifs with lots of designs, and all those designs are hand-appliqued. So, if you’re looking to start a quick project, even a Hawaiian quilted pillow is going to be a serious effort to undertake if you aren’t used to hand-quilting. However, if you’re a hand-quilter by craft, then no problem! You’re more than ready for the challenge!

The Details

The technical details of the quilts are as follows: first, you’ll need to get yourself a pattern. Plants, animals, and Hawaiian crests are traditional. Pineapples, taro, ti leaves, fish, birds, and breadfruit are all typical design motifs. There seems to be some debate in the traditional Hawaiian quilting community as to whether or not you should make your own patterns or if buying one is acceptable for a traditional quilt, but no matter what, there are tons of places where you can get patterns for Hawaiian quilts. The patterns are traditionally drawn on paper, then transferred to folded fabric that is then cut out–kind of like those snowflakes that school children craft every winter. If you’re familiar with Chinese paper cutting, this part of the craft will be familiar to you.

Then, lovingly, painstakingly, the design is basted to the backing fabric, then hand-appliqued. Once that is done, after many hours of work, the layers of the quilt are arranged, then the quilt is bound. Traditional quilt binding is done in echo stitch, the binding stitches matching the shape of the design. Some quilters make different binding stitches inside the design to mimic the natural textures of what the motif is meant to represent. If it’s a pineapple or a breadfruit, they make a grid. For flowers, elegant swirl stitches. It’s recommended to start from the center of the design, then move out to the rest, to anchor the layers of the quilt correctly.

The Finished Product

Add your border and that’s it! You’re done. A Hawaiian quilt is a labor of love, particularly for native Hawaiians, who use it as a way to connect to their ancestors. Lili’uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, was said to enjoy quilting, as it was a popular pastime for ladies at the time.

Use your quilt as an opportunity to learn more about Hawaiian culture as well! Hawaii is an archipelago with a complex and interesting history and an amazing, diverse culture that deserves exploring. Aloha!

About Amy Patterson

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