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What is Hawaiian Quilting?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Hawaiian quilting is a fabric arts tradition that has its origins on the islands of Hawaii. Quilting was brought to the Hawaiians by missionaries in the early 1800s and Hawaiian artisans developed their own take on the craft, producing a quilting tradition that is distinctive and very unique. Hawaiian quilters sometimes make their pieces available for sale, although original quilts tend to be very expensive because quilting methods used in Hawaii are very labor intensive.

Several characteristics distinguish Hawaiian quilting from other types. The first is the use of only two to three fabrics in a quilt, although the fabrics may be colorfully dyed or patterned. Secondly, Hawaiian quilting relies on applique designs, rather than pieced quilts. Traditionally, quilters fold a piece of fabric into quarters or eighths to cut out a pattern, ensuring that it will be highly symmetrical, and a single large applique piece may be used for the main design on the quilt. Hawaiian quilting was traditionally done by hand and although some quilters today use sewing machines, the habit of using ornate and complex stitching persists, requiring many hours of work to finish a quilt.

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Many Hawaiian quilts have floral patterns influenced by the natural world of Hawaii. Others come from the flag quilt tradition, integrating symbols of Hawaiian culture into quilting designs. Flag quilts originally included references to Hawaii's period of independence before colonization and motifs like crowns and royal crests can still be seen on some Hawaiian quilts. The characteristics of traditional Hawaiian quilting began developing in the late 1800s and today this craft is well established.

Each Hawaiian quilt is traditionally unique. Historically, only one quilter worked on each quilt, and quilts were designed for specific people. The quilt was associated with the name of the creator and there were a number of superstitions about quilts, such as the idea that people should never sit on quilts and the belief that people who were sick could be healed by sleeping under quilts made for them. The highly personalized and intimate nature of Hawaiian quilting led some families to regard quilts as being like members of the family, representing family history and friendships.

Some quilters maintain the tradition of designing custom pieces for specific recipients. Others may use generally released patterns for their Hawaiian quilting, as seen with quilts that are designed for sale to visitors. The visual themes of Hawaiian quilting are retained whether people are using mass produced patterns or developing quilts from scratch.

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