by Suzanne Labry
A Queen’s Protest Quilt
Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch, ca. 1891.The fact that women have been using quilts
as a medium of protest and political statement for centuries is hardly a revelation. What is unusual, however, is when it is a queen who makes such a quilt.
Queen Liliuokalani reigned from January 29, 1891 until January 17, 1893, when pro-American forces overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and proclaimed a provisional government in its place. Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Liliuokalani had no choice but to surrender her throne. She made a plea to the U.S. government to be reinstated and a representative of President Grover Cleveland found the overthrow to be illegal, but the provisional government refused to do anything.
When an uprising by her supporters was forcefully put down in January 1895, Liliuokalani was arrested and imprisoned in Iolani Palace. She remained there for eight months until she was released on parole. She was not pardoned until October 1896.
During her palace imprisonment, Queen Liliuokalani made a quilt that documented her displeasure at the turn of events in her kingdom. Reflecting the time period, she chose the style of quilt that was all the rage during the Victorian Era. Crazy quilts gained popularity in the late 19th century as part of the artistic and cultural exchange between Japan and the West. The general fascination with Japanese crazed ceramics and asymmetrical art translated to needlework in the form of the crazy quilt, with asymmetrically placed lavish fabric pieces embellished with elaborate embroidery stitches.
The 97” x 95” “Queen’s Quilt” features nine Crazy patchwork blocks separated by sashing and bound by a narrow border. In the quilt's center block, Liliuokalani placed the royal
coat of arms framed by pairs of crossed Hawaiian flags. She stitched "Imprisoned at
Iolani Palace…we began the quilt here" on the block and also stitched other events that changed the course of Hawaiian history, including the date the provisional government
was put in place when Liliuokalani was forced to step down, and the date of the aborted revolution that precipitated the queen's arrest. There are also commemorative and patriotic ribbons and badges.
Crazy quilt made by Queen Liliuokalani during her imprisonment, 1895-1896.
Queen Liliuokalani was not only an important political figure in Hawaii’s history; she was also one of her homeland’s most accomplished composers and musicians, having written over 165 songs and chants. During her confinement, the queen wrote one of Hawaii’s most beloved songs, “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”).
Until her death in 1917, Liliuokalani fought unsuccessfully for the restoration of the Hawaiian kingdom. Her quilt, a lasting testimony to her desire to return to the throne, is on display in Queen Liliuokalani's "prison" room in the makai-Diamond Head second-floor corner of Iolani Palace.