The International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) in Lincoln, Nebraska is partnering with American Patchwork & Quilting to share information on quilting traditions around the world.

June 14, 2013

Global Perspective: Hawaiian Quilts

Written by Linzee Kull McCray

Taking a tradition, giving it a twist, and making it one's own. It's the way of the quilting world and Hawaiian quilts are no exception.

While missionaries taught native Hawaiians to quilt as early as 1820, it wasn't until 1870 that the plant-inspired, symmetric designs we associate with Hawaiian quilts emerged. This warmly colored and intricately appliquéd quilt, made by an unknown quilter between 1930 and 1955 in a pattern called Beauty of Hilo Bay, is typical of many Hawaiian quilts. The one large design is cut from a single piece of fabric, creating a mirror image pattern, the background is the color of unbleached muslin, and the appliqué fabric is solid, rather than patterned. Another typical aspect is the quilting.

"The radiating echo quilting emphasizes the balanced pattern so beautifully," says Carolyn Ducey, curator of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum. "These quilters used batting that was very thick and of a much higher loft than was typically seen in American quilts and that, combined with the dense quilting, highlighted the pattern even more."

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.

Inspiration in Hawaiian Quilt Designs

No one is sure where the designs in Hawaiian quilts come from. Before missionaries arrived, Hawaiian natives created cloth from the inner bark of an island tree. They used this kapa moe for bedcoverings, but the designs were painted rather than appliquéd and were more geometric than those found on Hawaiian quilts. German missionaries may have brought to the islands the tradition of scherenschnitte, intricate papercutting, and may have brought quilts based on scherenschnitte, as well. However the designs came into being, once they were created by the quilter they were kept within a family for many years. Not all Hawaiian quilts use designs based in nature: flags and even figures can be found on quilts made in the Hawaiian Islands.

Quilts like this one were likely made by a woman of means, who would have the time to create such a masterpiece, Carolyn says. Its excellent condition indicates it wasn't heavily used as a bedcovering, but rather brought out for display when guests visited and then tucked away.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.

Traditional, Yet Unique Quilt Designs

Quilts with this kind of overall pattern were typically stitched solo: the intricate appliqué had to be heavily basted before the fine appliqué stitching was done and the appliqué had to lie completely flat to avoid distortion.

"These quilts have their basis in the traditional European quilt, but when you see them you know they're Hawaiian," says Carolyn. "The Hawaiians found a way to take the traditional and make it unique."

For information and pictures of a variety of Hawaiian quilts, visit Honolulu's Bishop Museum's Ethnology web site.

To learn more about the IQSCM's extensive collection of more than 2,300 quilts and the history behind them, visit

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.