The evolution of Hawaiian quilts is a bit obscure. There are few facts, much conjecture, and a wealth of stories. One well-known fact is that in 1820, when missionary wives arrived in Hawaii, they brought with them their pieced and patchwork (now known as applique) quilts from the eastern seaboard of the United States. They also brought an insistence that natives be clothed. The hasty construction of a muumuu left few scraps for piecing a quilt. Since Hawaiian women had been making kapa cloth for clothing and bedding for hundreds of years, they were used to working with large pieces of fabric, or kapa. So, to them, it made little sense to cut a large piece of fabric into pieces, just to sew the pieces back together again to make a quilt. A more logical approach was to work with a whole piece of cloth.
Conjecture takes over at this point. We believe the organic shapes of leaves and flowers used in applique quilts appealed to Hawaiians more than the geometric shapes of squares and triangles. It seems that it did not take very long for the small applique paper-cut blocks to merge with the large pieces of cloth to produce the one-piece, bed-sized applique quilts that soon become known as Hawaiian quilts.
One story tells of a woman drying sheets on her lawn near a breadfruit tree. The shadow cast on her sheets by the tree caught her attention, and inspired her to cut the first Hawaiian quilt from her sheet using the breadfruit as her design.
Here are the five components that, when used together, produce a typical Hawaiian quilt:
Two contrasting colors
Applique, cut from one piece of fabric
Design inspired by nature, or a meaningful life-event.
These five characteristics are not rules or absolutes, just general trends that have developed through the years; trends that historians have recognized and recorded. There are plenty of examples of quilts that are considered to be Hawaiian that do not display one or more of these typical characteristics.
It is our belief that the underlying, often unspoken, characteristic that binds all Hawaiian quilters together is their creativity. Creative use of the limited materials available to them at any given time, on their tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; creative adaptations to newly learned skills; and a creative spirit in touch with their natural surroundings.