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    Tips of the Trade

    Why Hawaiian Quilts?


    Posted: 1.11.2007

    Nancy and Mark Walberg at the Queen Emma Summer Palace

    While in Honolulu, appraiser Nancy Druckman and host Mark Walberg were treated to a tour of quilts at the Queen Emma Summer Palace.

    Hawaiian flag quilt

    This Hawaiian flag quilt, c. 1900, was made with three colors rather than the usual two—one of the reasons it's worth between $40,000 and $60,000.

    Quilters stitching

    Hawaiians use whole cloth, then appliqué a second piece of cloth on top to create a colored silhouette of the image.

    Chrysanthemum quilt

    The stitching of this honey thistle- or chrysanthemum-style quilt echoes the floral design like ripples from a pebble dropped in water.

    Granted, when you close your eyes and let your mind drift toward Hawaii, quilts probably aren't what you picture. But despite its balmy climate, the island has a rich quilt-making tradition that can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when American missionaries first taught the craft to Hawaiians. Since then, Hawaiians have made the craft their own, developing a unique island quilt-making style.

    Hawaii's quilt-making tradition is as unique as the Pacific island culture it comes from

    We asked ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser Nancy Druckman, director of the American Folk Art Department at Sotheby's, to give us an introduction to Hawaiian quilt-making, and to provide some tips to those who might want to collect these quilts.

    "There is something very spiritual about these quilts that goes back to ancient Hawaiian culture," says Nancy, who visited the Queen Emma Summer Palace when ANTIQUES ROADSHOW visited Honolulu in the summer of 2006. "It's not just making pretty bed coverings. They took what they learned from the missionaries and absorbed it and put it in service to what's unique to Hawaii."

    Hawaiian Quilt Themes
    Hawaiian quilts almost always portray one of two themes: flags or flora. Many quilts depict variations of the Hawaiian flag, a reminder of the island history before it was annexed by the United States in 1898. "They incorporate the Union Jacks, the kingly symbols," Nancy says. "They are looking back in Hawaii history to when they were not subjugated by American interests and the sugar industry." The most valuable flag quilts can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Nancy says that Sotheby's sold one for $44,000 in 1998.

    Also prized are the quilts decorated with flora native to Hawaii, such as pineapples, breadfruit, palm fronds, or one of the many varieties of leafy vines indigenous to the island. The floral designs are more available and less expensive, selling for between $8,000 and $15,000, Nancy says.

    A Hawaiian Style
    Unlike the approach often favored by American quilters, Hawaiian craftsmen and craftswomen don't patch together pieces of fabric scraps and then decorate the patches, or create narrative stories with their decorations. Instead, Hawaiians use whole cloth, then appliqué a second piece of cloth on top to create a colored silhouette of the image—the outline of a Hawaiian flower, for example. "It's like a big paper cut-out," Nancy says. "It's one big pattern made from two pieces of cloth."

    The Hawaiians also use fine stitching to reinforce their designs. "It's sometimes called an echo pattern," Nancy says. "They do the stitching in concentric rings around the image, almost like dropping a stone in water, where you have the ripples of stitching fanning out."

    What to Look For
    What should guide your hunt for a top-quality Hawaiian quilt? "You're looking at the overall condition of the quilt," Nancy says, "which means the intensity of the color and the soundness of the quilt. That means no major repairs, alterations, or replacements. All the fabric has to date to the same period of time." The fineness of the stitching is also prized. Provenance, as with all antiques, also influences the market price of a quilt. "If it comes from an illustrious family," Nancy says, "it's worth more than if it comes from the marketplace."

    Either way, Hawaiian quilts are more rare than those made elsewhere in the United States. "They haven't been at it as long," Nancy says of the Hawaiian quilters, "and cotton isn't even something that is grown there. They also don't have the geographic temperatures that made it necessary to create bed coverings. The quilts served more of a ceremonial purpose for the maker and the family." Besides, Nancy notes, "families do tend to hang on to them."

    The technique of chromolithography faded towards the end of the 19th century. In a sense, the process was done in by its own success. Poorer-quality chromolithographs cheapened the reputation of the entire field, as did cheaper machine prints. "People forgot about them," Chris says. "Today, people don't know about them, but they're great prints that tell us about our culture in the late 19th century."

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.

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