Hawaiian Quilts: Tradition and Transition. Reiko Mochinaga Brandon and Loretta G. H. Woodard. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2004. 140 pp.
Reviewed by Marsha MacDowell
1989 the Honolulu Academy of Arts partnered with Toshiyuki Higuchi of
Kokusai Art to create an exhibition accompanied by a publication edited
by Reiko Mochinaga Brandon (The Hawaiian Quilt,
Kokusai Art, 1989). The exhibition and publication featured quilts from
four Hawaiian museums and profiled the quilts of eleven contemporary
quilters. With the addition of Loretta G. H. Woodard, the same team has
produced Hawaiian Quilts: Tradition and Transition
in tandem with an exhibition of the same name that featured 52 quilts
from contemporary artists and 22 historical quilts drawn from three
Hawaiian museum collections. Both the latter and the former
publications provide a summary of the history of quiltmaking in Hawaii.
is different between the two exhibition catalogues? This time the team
is able to draw upon the extensive research that has been undertaken by
numerous individuals on different aspects of Hawaiian quiltmaking and,
in particular, the work of the Hawaiian Quilt Research Project, a
non-profit organization that, since 1990 has registered more than 1500
quilt patterns from thirty-seven public and private collections and
more than 1,200 Hawaiian quilts. The introduction
to the history of quiltmaking is now enriched and expanded, including
important newly-collected information that explores the influence of
quilt shows, pattern makers, teachers (especially county extension
agents and those affiliated with museums and hotels), collectors
(especially Laurence S. Rockefeller), marketing of patterns, tourism,
and the inclusion of articles about Hawaiian quiltmaking in
nationally-distributed women’s magazines.
Hawaiians had a rich tradition of textile production before contact with Western societies. Their tapa or bark cloth and woven lauhala
palms, especially, resulted in creative and functional clothing,
bedding, and other textile forms. When missionaries and traders
introduced Western fabrics and patchwork quilting to the islands in the
early part of the 19th century, Hawaiian artists quickly adapted these
new materials and techniques to their own aesthetics and purposes. A
style known as the “Hawaiian quilt” became popular; it consisted,
typically, of an overall design cut into a piece of cloth and then
appliquéd onto another bed-sized cloth of contrasting color.
Traditional tapa designs and
motifs associated with each island employing particular colors and
flowers and symbols of Hawaiian royalty were incorporated into their
quilt designs. Similarly, quilting stitches were inspired by designs
used to decorate tapa as well as motifs taken from nature (e.g. turtles, rain, shells). Hawaiian Quilts: Tradition and Transition
does an excellent job of covering this early history in the opening
essay and in the extensive notes accompanying each illustrated quilt.
historical discussion of quilt making dating from the early 20th
century to today makes this publication useful to researchers,
especially those investigating textile, art, and design studies or
Hawaiian history. Particularly helpful were the descriptions of new
technological changes and their incorporation into traditions, the
acknowledgement of vibrant quilting groups, and the in-depth profiles
of six living quilters from diverse backgrounds who are held in esteem
within Hawaii. These profiles allow the text to include other voices
through the excerpts of oral interviews conducted with each artist.
the foreword, the director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts notes that
the 1989 exhibition and publication were enormously successful and
introduced Japanese audiences to Hawaiian quiltmaking traditions.
Between then and now the number of Japanese individuals interested in
making and collecting quilts, including those in the Hawaiian style,
has exploded. Although Japanese artists have a long history of making
textiles that incorporate piecework and quilting, especially the
decorative, patterned style of stitching known as sashiko, it has not
been until relatively recently that so many textile artists have chosen
quilt making as their medium. There are an estimated two to three
million quiltmakers in Japan. Throughout the country, annual quilt
events (like the Tokyo International Quilt Festival that attracts
thousands of visitors) include and sometimes prominently feature
Hawaiian-style quilts. Over a century earlier at the 1876 Centennial
Exposition in Philadelphia, over nine million visitors were exposed to
the most extensive showing of Japanese art the Western world had ever
seen. As a consequence of the exposition’s Japanese Pavilion, American
art and design increasingly reflected Japanese motifs. One can only
wonder to what extent the showcasing of American quilts in major
festivals and shows in Japan and the distribution of articles about
American quiltmaking in Japanese publications have contributed to the
number of Japanese artists now engaged in quiltmaking. It would be
interesting to explore whether the first Hawaiian exhibition circulated
by Kokusai dramatically increased the number of “Hawaiian-style” quilts
made by Japanese artists.
are two related issues of nomenclature that the authors could have
addressed in more depth in the explication of the term “Hawaiian
quilt.” Brandon and Woodard acknowledge that “before the turn of the
century, Hawaiian quilts tended to be made and used only within the
Hawaiian community” (p. 15). By “community” I believe they mean Native
Hawaiians, and by “Hawaiian quilts,” I believe they mean those
exhibiting the appliquéd designs thought characteristic of a Native
Hawaiian contribution to textile making. Does the style make it a
“Hawaiian quilt” or is it the ethnic background or residence of the
maker? Similar nomenclature issues can be found in other works on
quilting cultures, for instance “Amish” and “Native American” quilts.
Likewise, it would have been helpful if the authors had provided more
information about quiltmaking in Hawaii in styles other than the
“Hawaiian-style.” How extensive are other styles? How are they regarded
by quiltmaking critics and teachers? Does it incorporate other regional
differences? I ask this as I recall, over the span of the past fifteen
years, visiting Hawaiian craft fairs and fabric shops and seeing quilts
made of old Hawaiian shirts and in patterns that included depictions of
Hawaiian shirts, ukeleles, surfers, pineapples, coconut palms,
volcanoes, Hawaiian legends, and oceanscapes.
facets of Hawaiian quilting still are yet to be explored in future
exhibitions and publications. One issue in need of study is directly
linked to the first Kokusai publication. Some of its illustrations were
copied by companies based in the Philippines and China that hired
ill-paid workers to produce quilts out of poor quality fabric in these
copied patterns. Many of the “Hawaiian” quilts now seen in shops
catering to tourists are, in fact, made overseas. These cheaply-priced,
poor quality, though colorful quilts not only represent an
appropriation of intellectual property but also have undercut the
ability of Hawaiian quilters to sell their work at prices that reflect
the quality materials and labor they invest in their art.
The text of Hawaiian Quilters
is presented in both English and Japanese, thereby extending the
accessibility of this publication to wider audiences. Once again,
Kokusai Art has set a standard for photography of the quilts; the
images by Fumio Ichikawa, Shuzo Uemoto, and Tadao Kodaira exhibit a
spectacular clarity of texture and color.
1. See Loretta G. H. Woodard (2006) "Communities of Quilters: Hawaiian Pattern Collecting, 1900-1959." Uncoverings 2006: Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group. 27:1-27, p. 23.
MacDowell is Professor of Art and Art History and Curator of Folk Arts,
Michigan State University Museum, home of the Great Lakes Quilt Center.
She is a principal director of The Quilt Index (www.quiltindex.org) and author of African American Quiltmaking in Michigan (Michigan State University Press, 1998) and To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions (Museums of New Mexico Press, 1997).