Modern Hawaiian Applique

There are two types of Hawaiian quilting:  kapa lau and  kapa 'apana

In  kapa lau quilts, a central design in four or eight identical segments is cut from a single piece of fabric, then appliqued atop a background. In many contemporary kapa lau quilts, the foreground patterns can be detailed and take up most of the backround spaces. In older designs, large areas of the background would be left visible.

In  kapa 'apana  quilts, a central medallion (piko) and a border that often incorporates the central design elements are composed separately and attached later. Some kapa 'apana may have separate motifs, usually four or more, symmetrically arranged in the quilt's center. 


Moani Revoir, Kailielehiwa's Orchid, 2019

Shortly after moving to Utah, Moani learned the basics of quilting from a neighbor. She felt an immediate connection to the process. Moani was able to connect to her heritage and her ancestors as she learned the techniques of whole cloth quilting and completed family quilts. For the next several decades, Moani attempted to design a quilt for her mother but nothing ever felt right. 

On the 10th anniversary of her mother’s passing, Moani recalled her mother caring for orchids at their home in Hawaii. The design immediately popped into her mind. As Moani searched for fabric, she recalled another instance when a butterfly flew into their home and landed on an orchids while she and her mother watched.

Modern day Hawaiian Quilts differ from other Pacific Island styles of quilting in composition and process. 

Hawaiian quilts are made of three layers: a top design, middle batting, and bottom backing.

To create the top design, or  medallion, a quilter will fold a square of fabric into eighths. A design is traced or drawn onto the folded fabric or cut freehand. To finish the quilt, the applique design is basted and sewn onto a contrasting background fabric. Then, the top fabric and background fabric are joined to the middle batting later with small quilting stitches through all three layers of material.


Echo Quilting, by Karen Barry, 2018 Photo courtesey of Okan Arts

The contour quilting you see here, also known as humu lau, kuiki lau, and  echo quilting is created by following the outline of the central applique design, keeping the rows usually about half an inch apart from the center of the quilt to the border. 

The repetition of the stitching creates a design that echo's the applique patterns. Many Hawaiian quilters speak of these stiches as representations of waves breaking in the ocean, and the border as  ho'opae' which translates to "go ashore." (Hammond, Joyce D. Tifaifai and Quilts of Polynesia. University of Hawaii Press, 1986.)


Maurice “Keola” Ohumukini, Intertwined Lei Pillow, 2019

Since his youth Maurice “Keola” Ohumukini has trained to become a steward of Hawaiian arts and culture. He is a recognized master in the traditions of hula, singing, lei making, and foodways among others. Keola’s grandmother instructed him in Hawaiian quilting and taught him the meaning of the designs and stitch techniques.

When not performing, Keola still finds time to work on his craftsmanship and quilt projects. He is currently making a custom quilt for each of his children to inherit. The quilt design on this pillow depicts two intertwined leis - the green represents the maile lei made from ti leaves and the orange represents the ilima lei made from fresh flowers.

Vocabulary Words: 
  • kapa lau: style of Hawaiian quilting with a central design in four to eight identical segmets that is cut from one piece of fabric. This fabric is then appliqued on top of a background.
  • kapa 'apana: style of Hawaiian quilting with a central medallion and border. There are usually four or more motif's which are symmetrically designed and attached to the backing later.
  • piko: the central design on a traditional Hawaiian quilt, also known as the medallion.
  • medallion: the top or primary design on a traditional Hawaiian quilt.
  • echo quilting (also, humu lau; kuiki lau): A style of quilting in traditional Hawaiian applique processes in which the outline of the central design is followed by half inch rows from the center to the boarder, which simulate waves in the fabric.
  • ho'opae': Hawaiian, translates to: "to go ashore."
  • Ilima Lei: the Oahu island's representative flower let, which is primarily gold and orange. It is also referred to as the "royal lei" since it was at one time only worn by royalty.