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A Stitch In Time

By Katie Young

Introduced by the missionaries, the quilt has evolved into a uniquely Hawaiian art form. And the popularity of quilting seems to be growing because classes are always filled.

The rhythm of the stitch lulls former Miss Hawaii Patricia Lei Murray into a meditative state. She thinks about where she is, how she feels about her life and how quilting helps her to relax — letting the stress of the day just melt away.

“I’m the first person to talk about the therapeutic benefits of having some kind of art to rest your soul in,” explains Murray, who at 59 has seen her share of stress after raising five children.

“You can’t always be in control of the day-to-day things in life, but with quilting, I’m making something beautiful that I can be in control of.”

Some might call it tedious, painstaking — even crazy — to sit hour after hour for months or years weaving thousands upon thousands of tiny stitches into the fabric of a Hawaiian quilt.

But quilters sing the praises of this intricate art form, saying that Hawaiian quilting has multiple benefits, including a medium of expression for creativity, a relaxing pastime and a tradition that shares love and history between generations and friends.

Each quilt, each wall hanging tells a story. Traditional Hawaiian quilts were often inspired by Hawaiian flora and fauna, the environment or a meaningful life event.

“Hawaiians loved the idea of bringing the outside into the home,” says Murray.

Patterns were never copied from another person and certain things such as animals were never quilted, because Hawaiians believed that animals were meant to roam and that pinning them down would capture their spirit.

Human figures were also not quilted because it was believed that at night they could get up and walk around.

Originally, the concept of quilting was brought to the islands by the missionaries in the 1820s. At that time mostly embroidery and patchwork quilting was done.

“I think the Hawaiian women couldn’t understand why those missionary women would cut up bolts of fabric only to sew them back together again,” says Murray.

Thus, the ingenuity of the people gave way to a Hawaiian form of quilting. The difference in Hawaiian quilting is that the traditional quilts, done entirely by hand, use only two colors stitched in white thread. Patterns are cut in a “snowflake” fashion, rendering them symmetrical, balanced and square. Patterns are then appliqued (a process where the raw edge of patterned material is turned under and stitched) to a background and quilted. Echo or contour quilting, like ripples in the water, outline and mimic the design in white thread to the edges of the quilt, giving it a three-dimensional quality.

Quilts done by the masters can earn between $4,000 and $10,000 or even more upon sale, often taking years to complete a bed-size piece with one-of-a-kind design entirely finished by hand. If you get a quilt as a gift, feel honored because countless hours and effort went into the creation of that piece.

Today’s quilters are a mixture of traditional and contemporary, with contemporary quilts maintaining a Hawaiian style, but few other traditional rules apply, such as color or traditional kapus on design.

Murray, who is a teacher and program director of the Hawaii Quilt Guild (a group which has over 150 members), has introduced a new technique to quilting that she calls “Share Hawaiian Magic.” This technique removes the appliqueing process, and uses an overlay of organza material to encapsulate the pattern underneath a thin film of fabric secured by holographic thread.

While some disagree with the contemporary form of the art, Murray looks to an old Hawaiian proverb: “Not all learning will come from one school.”

Most schools and classes however, of which there are many on Oahu, do use the same basics when introducing new students to the art of quilting.

“Usually in Hawaiian quilting classes today, the ‘ulu,’ or breadfruit design is taught first,” explains Laurie Woodard, project consultant for the Hawaiian Quilt Research Project. In addition to the simplicity of the design, “In Hawaiian lore, the ulu is the source of food and knowledge. It is believed that if you make your first quilt out of this pattern, you will never lack for knowledge.”

For Nalani Goard, knowledge of quilting started at the age of 13, when she attempted a school project: a lei Ilima quilted pillow.

“My grandmother (the late Debbie Kakalia) taught us all to quilt when we were young. At that time I didn’t finish the project and got a C-minus,” remembers Goard.

Years later, Goard would return to quilting — and finishing that first pillow. The passing of her grandfather and subsequent passing of her mother left her and her grandmother, better known as “Aunty Debbie,” to mourn together.

Aunty Debbie, who passed away three months ago, had been teaching quilting at the Bishop Museum for 27 years. Now Goard has taken over the program.

“Some days we don’t have enough chairs,” says Goard of her weekday quilting workshops that attract young and old, men and women, novice and advanced quilters. All walks of life come through these doors. We have doctors, electricians, traffic controllers, fishermen … Now I’m even teaching the granddaughters of women whose grandmothers took lessons from (Auntie Debbie).”

One of Goard’s proudest moments was when a chrysanthemum wall hanging — the first one she designed and one of the last things Auntie Debbie quilted — was purchased for Crown Princess Aiko in Tokyo, just two days before Auntie Debbie passed away.

Murray says people often ask her how she finds time to quilt.

“It’s a matter of making time,” she says. “

For quilters, once they get started, they are propelled by their work. They are eager to get it to a certain point before they put it away. Quilting is not something you can do in a hurry.”

The Mission Houses Museum hosts the 24th annual Hawaiian Quilt Exhibition June 29-Aug. 10.

For those interested in classes:

  • Bishop Museum 842-6541
  • Hawaii Quilt Guild 456-3007
  • Homespun Harbor 488-5844
  • Kwilts ‘N Koa 735-2300
  • Bernina 593-9150
  • Kuni Island Fabrics 955-1280
  • City Parks & Recreation: East Honolulu 973-7251,
    West Honolulu 522-7070,
    Leeward 671-0561,
    Windward 233-7300

Posted: October 28, 2002 @ 12:00 AM HST

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