Hawaii’s first residents made their cloth, kapa, by pounding bark from the mulberry tree into thin sheets, then decorating it with plant dyes. Later, introduced to the fabrics and sewing techniques of American missionaries, islanders developed the elaborate appliqued flower, leaf and vine designs that have become the hallmark of a “Hawaiian quilt.”
Today’s Hawaiian Quilts
Quilts are being made throughout Hawai’i by women and men of all ages, professions, and ethnicities who stitch away in quilt shops, in classes, and at home. Many of today’s quiltmakers combine design motifs from the past with creative ideas of their own, producing textiles as unique as the artists themselves.
Helen Friend is one Hawai’i artist whose quilts reflect current events and contemporary vision. A passionate needlewoman since the age of five, it wasn’t until 1985 that she discovered quilting as a form of expression. While her large quilts and hangings honor traditional patterns, she prefers to explore her own ideas and create something totally new.
“Every quilt should have a reason behind it; that’s where the mana (spiritual power) comes in,” says Friend.
A friend has drawn inspiration from the challenges of major competitions, from nature’s power, from news articles, from conservation work on historic textiles, and from class assignments at the University of Hawai’i fiber arts program. Since her first quilt 10 years ago, Friend has tried to make a quilt a year to enter in local, juried mixed-media exhibitions.
Her first piece, Liberty Quilt, represented Hawai’i at the Great American Quilt Festival in 1986, a competitive show held in New York to celebrate the Statue of Liberty Centennial. After Liberty Quilt, Friend turned her attention homeward and created a series of quilts that originate in traditional Hawaiian quilt motifs but depart from rigid convention.
Her latest creation is Red Wall, hand-sewn in reverse applique. Says the artisan, “The idea first came from a color combination I saw a few years ago. But as I began to work, the catastrophe of Rwanda unfolded. And as I finished the project, the war in Bosnia continued. I like to think that each stitch recognizes a life lost.”
No matter what project she’s involved in, it’s clear that Friend loves her work. “To me,” she says with a satisfied smile, “quilting is a most satisfying way of recording my life.”