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Island Inspirations

Martha Stewart Living, August 2009

Give your rooms a tropical touch with fabric projects borrowed from Hawaii's celebrated quilting tradition.

Island Inspirations: A Glossary of Our Patterns

Preparing Appliques

Pineapple Decoupage Votives
Rice-Paper Wall Art
Stenciled Hawaiian-Print Bed Linens
Hawaiian Quilted Pillow Cover
Stenciled Hawaiian Flower Cushions and Lauhala Mats
Applique Robe with Hawaiian Floral Print
No-Sew Applique Curtains with Ginger Flower Print

Inspired by the islands' lush tropical flora, Hawaiian appliqued quilts have swirls of stitching that appear to ripple with the breeze. The kaleidoscopic motifs are decidedly modern, which belie the textiles' history, spanning more than 175 years.

Quilts in the American and European style came to the Hawaiian islands in the 1820s, brought by missionaries who shared the technique with local women. Then, as now, mainland examples called for elaborate piecework in an array of hues. But in Hawaiian hands, the needlecraft evolved to suit island tastes and realities. 

Faced with a limited fabric selection, resourceful quilters developed a two-color design, typically pairing a vibrant tone with white. To limit fabric waste, they worked with a central applique -- a four- or eight-point motif -- that popped against the neutral background. 

The quilters, in tune with their natural surroundings, adapted the forms of native plants, flowers, and fruits for the appliques. Ferns, hibiscus blossoms, and 'ulu ( breadfruit) were among the early favorites. Motifs were often created with a special person in mind, and patterns were guarded as a secret family recipe might be. The textiles were finished with what quilters call contour, or echo, stitching, a type of surface handiwork that reiterates the motif's curves in successive waves. 

Before long, the beautiful quilts attracted overseas admirers, giving rise to newspaper articles, books, and classes. Starting in the 1920s, fine-arts museums featured the work in exhibits, including one at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. By the 1970s, patterns once kept in private holdings were available to the public. 

The Hawaiian craft lives on today, as shown in the masterful teal-and-off-white quilt, above. With wide-brimmed monstera leaves as inspiration, it was designed for a wedding in 2001 and sewn over the next six years by a talented aunt of the bride's. 

Here, the eye-catching motifs travel beyond quilts to simpler fabric projects. By using stenciling, applique, and classic needlework technique on a smaller scale, you can brighten your decor with patterns from the Pacific, and say aloha to a time-honored tradition.

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