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Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces by Robert Shaw

from The Museum for Textiles' Newsletter
This is a very handsome book with colour plates showing 48 quilts dating from 1874 to 1994. The colours sizzle--like Hawaii--and the full page comment on each quilt directs the reader to look closely at both design and technique. Information known about the maker or history of the quilt is given and influences from America or Europe are referred to.

The individual quilts and their stories send the reader to the book's Introduction which gives essential background for seeing what lies behind the enormous, almost overwhelming, visual images. I longed for such information when, all unawares, I was startled by quilts on display in Hawaii. Many of the bold appliqué designs reflect the luxuriant tropical plants and creatures of the Hawaiian islands, and the spirit of natural objects is expressed through formalized design. In others, the design reflects the people's beloved national symbols, as national identity struggled for life against great power domination and absorption.

The life of the people and the land they live in is part of these quilts, as it is also for many North American quilt makers. Shaw says that an "intimate, personal and spiritual relationship with the natural world . . . lies at the heart of the Hawaiian quilts." (p.15). It has taken time for me to see the quilts as expressing the personal and social experience of the makers, rather than simply as decorative masterpieces, and this book has helped me.

The appliqué designs are cut from folded fabric in a way similar to European decorative folded paper cut designs. On the face of the quilt the textured surface created by quilting complements the appliqué. The quilt back, without colour, reveals a complex three-dimensional design of stitching.

Flag and other political quilts are mostly from the period at the end of the 19th century when the islands passed from independence to dependence and then annexation. They use national symbols with a freedom which suggests to me a deeply felt identity with the nation which was disappearing. Contacts with people from many parts of the world after 1778, and the new ways of life that they brought, changed and decimated the population. What we know as the Hawaiian quilt combines earlier sensibilities with newer ones and continues today as a living tradition. Some of the contemporary quilt artists included are developing new designs and techniques.

Older Hawaiian quilts, and many modern ones, have been made as gifts for a family member or loved person, and carry the maker's spirit and feeling. "Quilt making was, above all else, an act of love" (p.15) and the name of the quilt may express a personal meaning unknown to other people. Modern artists represented in the book talk about this in describing their work.

Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces is at once a beautiful coffee-table book and a substantial account of a distinctive textile tradition. It is well worth reading.

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from Piecework (May/June 1997)
If you've ever dreamed of a trip to the Hawaiian Islands to explore Hawaiian needlework traditions, this excellent book is for you. The colorful dust jacket invites you in, the informative introduction prepares you for the journey, and the pictures and text lead you through a stunning tour of forty-eight antique and new Hawaiian quilts from museums and private collections.

The distinctive folded and cutout Hawaiian appliqué quilts look like giant snowflakes, and no two are alike. Their designs are loosely based on indigenous flora and are enhanced by the distinctive, undulating contour hand quilting. In addition to patriotic flag quilts, unusual pieced quilts, a crazy quilt with a message, there are also examples of kappa moe, early bark-cloth bed covers.

Although I do have a quibble or two with statements pertaining to mainland quilt history, Shaw has captured the true spirit of Hawaiian quilts and their makers. He discusses historical misconceptions and explains how ongoing research constantly brings forth new facts to explore and ponder. Each quilt is shown flat in full color, with accompanying information about the quiltmaker (when known) and historical background information. There are no patterns or specific how-to instructions, but there are explanations of the techniques and design processes.

I wish there had been an afterword. I needed someone to applaud this lovely book with me when there were no more pages left to turn, and perhaps to say "Aloha" and send me gently back to my real life. A resource list would have allowed me to continue the adventure.

The author describes Hawaiian quilts as capturing all the qualities of the islands: "They are ambassadors of the islands, created out of love for these unique lands and between the people who live on them." Don't miss this opportunity to take an armchair journey to Hawaii to explore these quilt masterpieces.

from Library Journal, 04/15/1997:

First brought to the islands by missionaries and traders in the late 19th century, quilting in Hawaii adapted to the physical and cultural environment of the islands to become a distinctive art form. The earliest quilt in this collection of Hawaiian masterworks dates from 1874 and the most recent from 1995. Following the format of his earlier Quilts: A Living Tradition (LJ 2/1/96), Shaw includes a detailed color photograph, a historical introduction, and a critique for each of the 48 quilts. Essential for textile history collections.

Publisher's Note:
Hawaii's quilts reflect one of the world's most unusual and exotic cultures. Bringing elements of their Polynesian heritage to the American quilt, nineteenth-century Hawaiians created a distinctive and beautiful art form that is still actively practiced throughout the islands. Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces presents forty-eight remarkable historic and contemporary quilts, all reproduced in full color, that trace the history of the islands: from the early influences of missionaries and traders, to annexation by the United States and subsequent statehood, to the current concerns of today's quilt masters. Hawaii's stunning quilts capture the essence of the islands' overwhelming natural beauty as well as its people's legendary grace and charm. Early quilters developed the beloved Hawaiian applique quilt, its lovely floral designs cut like giant snowflakes from a single piece of cloth. They also created the unique tradition of the flag quilt, made to memorialize the glorious past of the Hawaiian kingdom that fell when the United States annexed the islands in 1898. This volume offers some of the finest examples of the islands' fabric art, highlighted by works of such masterful island quiltmakers as Elizabeth Akana, Sharon Balai, and Junedale Lauwaeomakana Quinories, whose clever variations on classic designs and techniques, spiced with subtle twists of modernity, keep these quilting traditions alive. Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces is the first new book on the subject in many years and is sure to become a standard reference in the field. If you are a lover of quilts, and if the idyllic geography and fascinating lore of the Hawaiian Islands lures you, then this is the perfect guide to the exotic and beautiful world of Hawaiian quilts.

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