APPLIQUE – Hawaiian and Tifaifai


  • Only two colours - traditionally red on white
  • Symmetrical design of four quarters
  • Design elements from nature: each is given a name
  • Hawaiian - 'echo' quilting follows outline of design


In the late 1700s whaling and trading ships came to the Islands and it is possible that the wives of whaling captains introduced basic skills of sewing and woven fabrics. After 1820 missionaries, European and Americans, came to the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean – Hawaii, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga. Regional styles developed according to the particular methods taught by the missionaries in each archipelago. After 1840, French colonists settled in Hawaii and as applique and quilting was very fashionable in France, this could have further strengthened the techniques introduced by the British.

The ‘snowflake’ art of paper cutting, the rage among women of 18th C England, was taught by the missionaries. This resembled the traditional dye-stamped designs on the tapas – a felted fabric used balanced, symmetrical design.

Traditionally the quilts used only two contrasting colours, white for the base and red for the appliqué. The use of only y two colours probably arose due to shortage of fabrics. A bright red cloth known as ‘Turkey red’ was highly favoured by Tahitians. It was the most available and used as barter by merchant seamen when trading.

Red and yellow quilts were also made because they were the royal colours of the Islands. The designs are what make Hawaiian quilting unique. They are based on nature; the landscape, flora (palms, hibiscus, pineapples), seaweed, coral, objects, legends, historic events, and given names.

This was a time of great and rapid change in Hawaii Their religion and self identity were being transformed by Christianity and Western ways and often their quilts incorporated their legends, old gods and flags which symbolised their self identity in a rapidly changing world.

Many believed that the spirit of the person creating the quilt became an integral part of the work, giving it a sense of life. Individual designs were guarded, kept in the family and passed from one generation to the next. Many of the quilts were the result of a highly personal event in the quilter’s life.


Hawaiians have a special relationship with their land. The ‘echo’ quilting, (lines 1/2 inch 5/8 apart) which followed the contours of the appliqué design, looked like the waves and tides surrounding their islands. It has been suggested that Hawaiian women, poetic and in touch with nature, adopted this quilting method incorporating the ‘feeling’ of Hawaii rather than merely a beautiful quilting technique.


In Tahiti the quilts known as tifaifai are large (2.4 x 2.1metres).Here, as elsewhere in Polynesia, precious tifaifai quilts of high significance, are used to celebrate important occasions such as marriage and birth. To be wrapped in a tifaifai is to be wrapped in warmth, respect, acceptance and love. ‘Snowflakes’ probably inspired the cutting method of appliqué designs by folding the fabric into quarters and cutting the entire design at once ensuring a symmetry.


Hawaiian Quilt: Where Heaven and Nature Sing - article by Beatrice Levin, Quilting Today, Issue 29
Root, E. Hawaiian Quilting Dover Publications, New York 1989
Poggioli, Vicki Patterns From Paradise: The Art of Tahitian Quiltin, Main Street Press, Pittstown, New Jersey, 1988
Serrao, Poakalani & John Hawaiian Quilt Cushion Patterns & Designs, Vol,1, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2002.

© Valerie Cavill, 2011