Issue 12.4: August/September 2009

Stitches in Time

story by Liza Simon

Robert Shaw is an expert on America’s folk arts: He’s written on, among other things, baskets, decoys, guitars and quilts. When he first saw Hawaiian quilts, he was struck by their boldness—and by their contrast to the subdued style typical of the New England missionaries who introduced quilting to Hawai‘i.

Curious, he began to investigate, and the result was his classic work Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces. The book profiles forty-eight stunning Island quilts—the earliest made in 1874 and the latest in 1994—and explores the question that first intrigued Shaw: How did Hawaiian quilting evolve? Quilts made their entry into Hawaiian society through the ali‘i, or royalty, he notes, but his book disputes the idea that the New England church ladies simply tutored the Hawaiian queens; instead, he writes, the ali‘i, who already placed a high premium on kapa [bark cloth] design, saw in quilting the potential to develop a new art form. So, Shaw writes, they discarded the foreigners’ penchant for piecing together small bits of fabric and instead chose to cut a huge appliqué design from a single piece of cloth. Their innovation caught hold: In only a few decades, Hawaiian quilters had not only developed their own technique, they’d used it to craft an iconic quilting language, one that spoke to native reverence for the blossoms and plants of Hawai‘i’s environment, from taro that represented ancestral roots to breadfruit for matrimonial joy. When the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown and Hawaiian traditions were suppressed, Island quilters turned political, defying the new regime by quilting the pattern of the Hawaiian flag. Hawaiian quilting continued to evolve with the changes of the 20th century, as Shaw’s book illustrates with works like the Honolulu Police Department quilt.

Ultimately, he avers, Hawaiian quilting has always been a creative way to nurture the soul. That view is seconded by Helen Friend, a contemporary Hawaiian quilter who has two extraordinary works in Shaw’s newly reissued book. One is a dramatic red and black quilt made to celebrate the volcano Kilauea; the other, a regal-looking wedding quilt Friend made for her daughter. The quilter says a remarkable sense of peace comes to her while she sews. “At what other time,” she asks, “can I be alone with my thoughts?” HH