Hawaiian Quilting: Meet the Women Keeping This Centuries-Old Craft Alive
Inspired by the islands' lush tropical flora, these appliquéd motifs are decidedly modern, which belie the textiles' history spanning more than 200 years.
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Hawaiian quilting is a unique 200-year-old art form that is done all by hand, with numerous hours devoted to the crafting of each piece. Just ask some of its masters—Patricia Gorelangton and Patricia Lei Murray—who are on a mission to spread some of their native Hawaii's beautiful art around the world from what they call "a tiny group of islands in the middle of a vast ocean."
Here, these two women share their journey to becoming master Hawaiian quilters and offer their insight into making one of your own.
A History of Hawaiian Quilting
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 appliqué—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 appliqués. Ferns, hibiscus blossoms, and 'ulu (breadfruit) were among the early favorites. "Sometimes, the design honors more traditional themes, such as ancient Hawaiian warrior helmets, or perhaps the early Hawaiian monarchy," says Gorelangton. "Or it might be inspired by the beautiful flowers and plants in Hawaii, or the fire goddess Pele."
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. "Hawaiians love the idea of bringing nature into our homes and they actually developed their own way of creating patterns depicting their favorite flowers, plants and so forth, " she says. "Interestingly, Hawaiian patterns are made of only two contrasting colors, but the patterns have been known to be exquisitely designed." 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, and Murray explains that every quilt has a story: "Patterns are handed down and shared by our kumu, or teachers, and the names usually describe the natural beauty that surrounds us—favorite flowers, fruits, dramatic leaves, places, even the night sky."
The Tradition Remade
Murray, who resides in Oahu, Honolulu, and has been quilting for 45 years. "I am the only Hawaiian quilter in my family, but my inspiration and love of working with fabric came from my mother and her talented handiwork," she says. "Quilting is very meditative for me. As I quilt, I can think about the person who is to receive this gift, and instill wishes of aloha and comfort. I can also be comforted as I quietly try to address a challenging moment in my life." To master the technique, Murray studied under three master quilters including John Serrao, who is considered one of Hawaii's premier quilt designers and regularly teaches the art alongside his daughter Cissy at the 'Iolani Palace and Royal Hawaiian Center. "John pulled me aside one day," Murray recalls, "and said, 'It's time you started drawing your own patterns. Look around... what do you see? What are you thinking about? Now draw it.'"
Gorelangton has been quilting for 36 years. At first, it was a creative way to pass time; it has since become a labor of love. "I love the hours of solitude in such a busy world," she says. "And I especially love the happiness that comes when someone receives a quilt from me, whether it's a completed commission or a personal gift." She learned the basics of quilting from her first kumu, Luika Kamaka. She joined the Poakalani quilt group in 2007, where she met Serrao and, like Murray, was able to enrich her craft thanks to his mentorship. "He taught me how to look to nature to be inspired or to let a story influence a design, and he mentored me when I started designing my own patterns," says Gorelangton. "I will forever be grateful for his guidance and his generosity."
A Lesson in Hawaiian Quilting
Cut-and-fold appliqué, as shown top right, is the preliminary step in any quilt. These motifs, each a stylized take on a tropical flower—naupaka flower, 'ohi'a lehua flower, and ginger flower—are used interchangeably in their projects. The project, pictured bottom right, offers a taste of traditional quilting on a small scale. First, a naupaka flower cut-out is appliquéd onto contrasting fabric. Batting is then sandwiched between the appliquéd square and another one, and echo quilting, shown above, is added around the motif before it's sewn into a pillow cover.
At last, a fully-formed quilt is unfurled. With wide-brimmed monstera leaves as inspiration, it was designed for a wedding in 2001 and sewn over the next six years by Avies Corpuz of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, a talented aunt of the bride's. Next to it, the peach-and-ecru quilt is one of several Hawaiian textiles that can be found at Fisher Heritage, a gallery in New York City. It dates to the 1930s. "Traditionally, a queen size can take one year to appliqué and one year, if not more, to quilt," says Murray. "But some of us have been known to complete the quilts in less time."
On Teaching the Next Generation of Quilters
For the past 20 years, Murray has shared her craftsmanship by teaching at quilt conferences, guild seminars, workshops, and classes. "I now have a group of women who meet with me monthly to quilt, share patterns, eat, laugh, and even cry together," says Murray, who shares her gift with family as well. "Hawaiian quilting is not about needle and thread. It is giving of one's self and time to stitch memories into a quilt that can last for generations. Every one of my five children and grand and great grandchildren will have a quilt. It is my legacy of aloha for my family and the gratitude for the soothing gifts of this Hawaiian art."
Gorelangton, who teaches Hawaiian quilting at a local college, says they will live on as family heirlooms. "One of my favorite things to do is to complete a quilt that has been started by someone's mother, or grandmother," she says. "There is always a feeling of 'coming full circle' for the quilt, and I know that it will be treasured by that family, and passed on to the next generation."