By Léo Azambuja

Left to right, quilters Jenny Conley, Lea Ingram and Julie Whitney show their quilts.

More than 200 years ago, an 85-foot brig carrying seven missionary couples and four Hawaiian boys sailed out of Boston, Mass. en route to the Hawaiian Islands. Five months later, on March 30, 1820 the Thaddeus would arrive in Hawai‘i bringing more than Christianity — they brought quilts.

Since then, for the past two centuries, the art of quilt-making in Hawai‘i has evolved into its own unique style, with elaborate local flora and pride.

“People tell me they can feel the love in the quilt, especially Hawaiians,” said Lea Ingram, a quilt maker for at least 25 years. She added old Hawaiians would always make quilts with a person in mind. “They always put all their love with every stitch; there was a lot of mana (divine power) in the quilts.”

Quilter Jenny Conley said that generally, a quilt is when you stitch together different pieces of fabric to make a whole piece. This piece goes on top, with another piece on the back. “In between those two pieces, there’s what we call batting, which gives it a little bit of texture when it’s quilted,” she said.

On Valentine’s Day, the Kaua‘i Quilt Show 2020 opens at the Kaua‘i Society of Artists at Kukui Grove Center in Lihu‘e. The annual exhibit has been running for about 20 years, according to Conley, a quilter for 24 years. Last year alone, she said, there were more than 2,000 people who came to see the quilts.

“We really bring in a lot of people,” Ingram said. “It’s a free event, and you get to connect with people who live here and see what they are doing. We love it because we get to share what we love to do.”

The Kaua‘i Quilt Show last year. Contributed photo

Ingram said she won’t know how many quilts will be on display this year until everyone submits their entries. She expects a minimum of 70 quilts hanging on the walls, but they usually have about 100 quilts from 30 to 40 quilters each year.

“They’re all made by local people, and every one is beautiful in their own way, with lots of different techniques and styles,” said Ingram, adding some of the quilts will be hand-stitched, a rarity these days.

The closest thing old Hawaiians had to quilts was the kapa moe, a layered blanket made out of beaten tree bark, usually from wauke, or mulberry tree. The first quilts made in Hawai‘i showcased tropical plants such as ulu (breadfruit), and utilized a single solid color — usually green, red or yellow — against a white background. Some quilts also depicted the Hawaiian flag or the royal coat of arms.

The show at Kukui Grove will have a few Hawaiian quilts, along with pieced quilts, “real traditional stuff,” Ingram said. Then there are some “very modern quilts,” and also art quilts, the kind of quilts that Ingram likes to make.

“It’s the size of a painting. I start with white fabric and I paint on it,” said Ingram, describing an art quilt. It was exactly her creation, an art quilt titled “Spirit of the Mountains,” depicting Kaua‘i’s mountains from a viewpoint in Kilauea, that snatched the Viewers Choide Award last year.

The Kaua‘i Quilt Show last year. Contributed photo

“Every year, we have the Viewers Choice Award,” Ingram said. “It’s free to get in the show, and you can vote for your favorite quilts.”

Ingram said each entry gets at least a couple votes from the public. There no judging in the show, only the Viewers Choice Award. It’s really all about connecting artists with each other and the public, and also raising funds for charity and next year’s show.

Though only few quilts in the show follow the old Hawaiian style, the show as a whole has a tropical Hawaiian flair. It’s common to hear from visiting quilters from the Mainland — where quilting has a huge following — that the show on Kaua‘i is their favorite one, and this is because of the vivid colors, creativity and unique motifs that quilters use here.

The first Kaua‘i Quilt Shows were held at Church of the Pacific in Princeville. For the last five or six years, Ingram said, the show moved to KSA at Kukui Grove, which allowed the quilts to be on display for 12 days rather than only a couple days in the previous location. It’s a winner for everyone, quilters, public, quilt clubs and charity organizations that receive donations.

“When somebody sells a quilt, we ask for a 10 percent donation,” she said. “We also take donations at the quilt show.”

There is also a “Quilt Boutique” at the show, an idea brought up by Conley. The quilters make small items, such as placemats or handbags. Proceeds from the Quilt Boutique go toward expenses in next year’s show, and into supplies for the Kaua‘i Quilt Guild and the Nene Quilters, which have about 85 and 45 members respectively.

Lea Ingram’s Spirit of the Mountains quilt, winner of the Viewers Choice Award in 2019. Contributed photo

Conley said many quilters make “donation quilts,” which can be bought at the show. Buyers can pick their favorite local charity that they wish to donate money. “They just write a check or give us cash, and the money goes right to that charity,” she said.

Last year alone, the show was able to put together $5,410 in donations to local charities, according to Ingram. It’s a lot of work; but who said work can’t be entertaining?

“It’s really fun, we have a great time and the money goes to good causes,” Ingram said.

The Kaua‘i Quilt Show 2020 opens Feb. 14 at Kaua‘i Society of Artists at Kukui Grove Center. There will be lots of good food and water (no wine, soda or coffee around quilts), and an opportunity to meet the quilters. The show runs daily through Feb. 26 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Friday until 8 p.m.).

The event is sponsored by the Kaua‘i Quilt Guild, the Nene Quilters, Vicky’s Fabrics, Kapaia Stitchery and Discount Fabric Warehouse.

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