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As a nearly lifelong lover of quilts, one of the things I’ve discovered—and what is probably the basis for my unflagging interest—is that the more I learn about quilts and quilting, the more I realize there is to learn. Not that I consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I have spent a lot of time around quilts and quilters and I study both at every opportunity.
Because of that interest and effort, I’ll have to admit to taking a teeny bit of pride in thinking that I know at least something about the history of quilts and the various types made throughout the world.
That’s why I was surprised (and delighted!) recently to learn about a genre of quilts that, despite my years of study, I had never heard of before: tivaevae (sometimes written tivaivai). Tivaevae are quilts made by Cook Island women of Maori descent. The Cook Islands are in the South Pacific Ocean, northeast of New Zealand. The group of 15 islands forms a parliamentary democracy in a free association with New Zealand, and Cook Islanders are considered citizens of New Zealand.
The history of Cook Island quiltmaking is similar to that of Hawaiian quiltmaking in that the wives of Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century introduced the artform to Cook Island women. There are certainly visual similarities between Hawaiian quilts and some tivaevae as well, particularly in the two-color appliqué pieces known as tivaevae manu, which feature stylized kaleidoscopic designs of flora and fauna common to the Polynesian islands.
Other types of tivaevae are distinctly different from Hawaiian quilts, however, and are unique to the Cook Islands. Traditionally, people and animals are not depicted in tivaevae patterns.
In the Maori language, the word “tivaevae” means to “stitch” or “sew.” Tivaevae are not precisely quilts in the strictest sense, in that they do not consist of a top, batting, and backing; rather they are coverlets with only a pieced or appliquéd top and a backing, as reflects the mild climate of the South Pacific.
Over the past century, the making of tivaevae has become an important part of the cultural life of the Cook Islands. Primarily made by hand and by women as a group endeavor, tivaevae are rarely used as bedcovers. Instead, they are created to commemorate ceremonial occasions such as hair cutting (an important ritualistic coming-of-age event for boys in Maori culture), baptisms, weddings, graduations, funerals (they are sometimes used as shrouds), and the like. They are highly valued by the society at large, even to the point of being considered an indicator of a family’s wealth and status, and may be passed down for generations as family heirlooms.
In addition to the Hawaiian-style appliqué tivaevae manu mentioned previously, there are several other distinct styles that combine piecing and appliqué and may be embellished with embroidery as well:
Tivaevae tataura feature fabrics of more than one color appliquéd onto a contrasting base and are heavily embellished with embroidery. From the photographs I’ve found, the tivaevae tataura can consist of either an overall design or a number of blocks sewn together to compose a whole, rather like a Baltimore Album quilt.
Tivaevae uati, which are made from diamond-shaped pieces sewn into stars; and
Tivaevae paka'onu, which are made from hexagonal-shaped pieces.
I would love to see a tivaevae “in person” one day. In the meantime, I’m simply enjoying the fact that there is still so much for me to learn about quilts and quilting.
Much more information about tivaevae can be found in the book, Tivaevae: Portraits of Cook Islands Quilting by Lynnsay Rongokea (1992,Wellington: Daphne Brasell Associates Press.)
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Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
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Column 131: All You Need Is Love
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Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
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Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
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Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
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Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
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Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
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Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
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Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
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