YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Shopping: Quilts : Stiches in Time : Hawaiian quilts get a fresh airing as a new generation discovers their special beauty

November 06, 1994|RITA ARIYOSHI | Ariyoshi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer

AHAINA, Maui — Wailani Johansen sits by her quilting frame in the living room of her small Lahaina house, ocean breezes drifting in past the hibiscus bushes as she stitches her way into the past.

"Both my grandmothers were Hawaiian. I watched them quilt with my aunts," says Johansen, now white-haired herself. "We used to raise our own sheep and card our own wool for batting. We wove our own fishnets, and we'd cook the fish with green seaweed and shrimp and sweet potatoes. Life was so rich. . . . When I sit here sewing, I recall all of it."

Hawaiian quilts like Johansen's, called kapa lau, are prized as much for their spiritual qualities as for their material value. Each one is named, and their makers claim the kapa lau are stitched with such love and prayer that they are endowed with mana, or spiritual presence. Generations of islanders have passed along family quilts as heirlooms, and when one finally deteriorates, it is burned rather than allowed to fall into disuse.

Now this art form that had been kept alive only through the patience of old Hawaiian women is enjoying a fresh airing. The abstract designs can be found blanketing beds, walls, clothes, pillows, even purses and pot holders. Quilting classes are packed with young mothers, middle-aged and recently retired women, and tourists. Prices for authentic quilts have gone through the roof, and Third World copycats have hit the market.

Custom, hand-sewn Hawaiian quilts cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 and take from three months to a year to complete, depending on the quilter, the complexity of the design and the size. But Hawaiian-style designs made by hand in the Philippines and sold in Hawaii cost around $1,000, and a few Hawaiian entrepreneurs are turning out machine-made versions for as little as $250.

Oddly enough, it is tourism--often blamed for the demise of local cultures--that has spurred renewed interest in the art.

Developer Laurance Rockefeller gave Hawaiian quilting its biggest boost in 1965 when he commissioned 30 quilts to decorate the walls of his new Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (closed for renovations until December, 1995). Soon, the quilts began appearing in hotel lobbies around the state.

The developing Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which has encouraged pride in the cultural legacy of the islands, is another factor contributing to the kapa lau's new popularity--along with the prosaic fact that contemporary furnishings mix well with the quilts' large, bold designs.

Mystery surrounds the origin of the Hawaiian quilt, just as it veils the beginnings of all things Hawaiian, even the people themselves.

Many people believe the first Christian missionaries from New England introduced the art of quilting to Hawaii. In 1820, a group of Hawaiians boarded the brig Thaddeus as it cruised along the Big Island's Kona coast. Lucy Thurston, in the mission party, wrote in her journal: "Monday morning, April 3, 1820, the first sewing circle that the sun ever looked down upon in this Hawaiian realm was organized. Kalakua, Queen Dowager, was directress. She requested the seven white ladies to take seats with them on mats, on the deck of the Thaddeus. Mrs. Holman and Mrs. Ruggles (were) to ply the scissors and prepare the work. . . . The four native women of distinction were furnished with calico patch work to sew--a new employment for them."

One popular story has it that the distinctly Hawaiian style of quilt-making was born sometime later, when a woman who was drying bed linen on her lawn noticed the shadow a breadfruit tree cast upon her sheet. She was so inspired by the dramatic silhouette that she cut it out, basted it on another piece of material and stitched the first Hawaiian quilt.

But Hawaiian women were creating their own versions of decorative bedspreads by the time the missionaries arrived. Before contact with the Western world in 1778, the Hawaiians had a history of sewing with olona plant fiber and needles made from bone. They also had a taste for fine bedding and transformed tree bark into beautiful soft kapa sheets, to which they applied their own stamped designs.

"To cut new material into bits to be sewn together (as the missionaries did with their patchwork quilting) seemed a futile waste of time," writes Stella Jones, a pioneer researcher in the study of Hawaiian quilts. "It was quite natural, therefore, that these (Hawaiian) women, accustomed each to her own designs. . . and her own individual wood-blocked patterns, should produce patterns of their own."

Several technical characteristics distinguish the kapa lau from other American quilts. Instead of being pieced together patchwork-style from many swatches of fabric, the kapa lau is made from just two pieces of cloth: One forms the body of the quilt, while another, cut in a bold, often geometric design, is appliqued on top. The two pieces are usually, but not always, solid colors of contrasting hue.

Los Angeles Times Articles