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Artistry From French Polynesia posted: 2/24/2003
by Dierdra McElroy Printable Page
Category: History Method: All
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EvantaillesFans Imagine that you are standing in your kitchen doing your dishes and happen to glance out the window only to witness an astonishing event! A spaceship slowly floats into your backyard and unearthly beings materialize from thin air. What you would be feeling at that moment must have approached what the people of Tahiti felt upon seeing the first great ships sailing into their harbor. Missionaries arrived around 1797 and were very "alien" to the Tahitians. The British women were covered from head to toe and appeared to be oddly shaped. The colonial women were equally astonished with the Tahitian women's lack of clothing and immediately set about trying to "civilize" the islanders.

The Tahitians' love of life drove them to adorn their bodies in beautiful ways. They wore flowers and shell leis, and intricate tattoos decorated their skin. Tapa was pounded out from mulberry saplings forming a thin, soft sheet of "fabric", which was also wonderfully decorated with natural dyes. Unfortunately, Tapa cloth was delicate and dissolved when wet. The Tahitians spent a great deal of time in and out of the ocean, so Tapa cloth was worn only by the ari'i (upper class). They were careful to remove the Tapa and gently set it aside while they swam.

The missionary women used this to their advantage inviting the women of the ari'i class on board the great ships and introduced them to patchwork quilting. The fabric fascinated the island ladies but being a very practical, simple people it made no sense to cut up a piece of fabric just to sew it back together again. Also being a very agreeable people, they did as they were shown until, one day; one of the women got a hold of some fabric all to herself. She took it to a quiet place and pondered the uses of her newfound treasure.

Four Winds

Unfortunately, written historical documentation was not a possibility for the Polynesians and what little history the missionaries wrote tends to be one sided due to the language barrier. Actions were often misinterpreted with the cultural differences and wrongly documented. We can however, deduce from the dates of occurrences what might have happened and how. It is very plausible to imagine a young German sailor, having been at sea for years, trying to impress a beautiful Tahitian vahine (maiden) with a cute little paper trick called Scherenschnitte. Before her eyes, he folded the paper in half, again in half, and then one more time diagonally making a triangle. Cleverly tearing the folded paper in different directions he revealed to her a beautiful symmetrical "snowflake" or design when he unfolded it.

Four Winds

Now, our young vahine is searching for something to do with her fabric piece. Remembering the sailor's paper trick, she wonders if she could do the same thing with her fabric. She carefully folds the fabric as she saw the sailor do with his paper and then laid it down on the ground in front of her. As she is thinking about a design, the sun changes angles and casts the shadow of a breadfruit tree branch on her folded fabric. Suddenly inspired, the young girl cuts around the shadow with her sharpened clamshell and then unfolds the first Tifaifai (pronounced tee fay fay).

When this design was laid on another piece of fabric and appliquéd, it created a whole new tradition to the islanders. Very quickly certain taboos were associated with the works of art, such as one never treads upon a finished Tifaifai; red and white colors were reserved for royalty, although royalty were never themselves the subject of new designs. Traditionally, the Tifaifai is made of 100% cotton solid colored fabrics because that was all that available to them at that time and for years to come. They enjoyed using bright and highly contrasting colors, which reflected their gregarious natures and happy lifestyles!

Four Winds

The missionaries brought with them thin cotton batting that was sandwiched and quilted into their patchwork quilts. The Tahitians quickly eliminated the process of quilting since a second layer of fabric and batting would have created a Tifaifai that was far too hot to sleep under in the tropics. This left them with what we would consider a 'summer spread' by today's standards. The designs were named by their creator and usually reflected something that impressed her during the Tifaifai's creation. The names often appear completely unrelated to the design in the eyes of a foreigner. Once a design was made into a Tifaifai, the pattern was to be destroyed or passed to a family member. The family member could then use that design if they changed it a little and gave it a new name, one that was important to her during the making of HER version of the Tifaifai.

Tahitian quilts are a unique and awe striking art form that are deeply intertwined with the rich Tahitian culture and traditions.

©2003 Dierdre McElroy
President Roxanne Products

About the Quilts Pictured in This Article:

This was made by Antonina. She is the sister of my best friend and lives in Paea, Tahiti. Her Tifaifai (quilt) was photographed at the Marae Arahuruhu, an ancient ceremonial ground.

"Four Winds"
made by Roxanne McElroy, it honors the legends of the Four Winds. This design is an original by Roxanne and represents the faces of the four winds blowing the ships out to the four corners of the world.

"Pablo Hibiscus"
made by Roxanne McElroy for Threads magazine. Non-traditional fabrics were used in this very traditional pattern giving a whole new dimension to the Tifaifai

"Tricycles & Trains"
made by my mother, Roxanne McElroy. It honored her childhood in the United States and her most fond memories of that time.

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