Glimpses by Sue Wademan, 83 x 119cm, Free-cut piecing and machine-quilted
Glimpses by Sue Wademan, 83 x 119cm, Free-cut piecing and machine-quilted

New Zealand lies alone in the southern Pacific Ocean. Its closest neighbours are Australia, 1600 miles to the west, and to the north New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Hawaii, which are part of the scattered chain of Polynesian islands. Yet despite their distance, the influence of these colourful South Pacific cultures is always apparent in the quilts found at New Zealand's prestigious shows such as Salute to Quilts, the national quilt exhibition held in Auckland, or Pataka, the biennial contemporary quilt exhibition in Porirua, Wellington.

Take Donna Ward's quilts, for instance. Just as the southern ocean’s palette of moods and colours are embodied in New Zealand, so Donna incorporates its elements in her designs, which are masterpieces of machine embroidery. They make clever use of heavy, variegated cotton thread, and you'll find blanket-stitch and free-form quilting done with many different coloured rayon threads that flow around the quilt’s sinuous shapes. Dreaming of Hawaii was influenced by Hawaii’s paper-cut snowflake quilt tradition, while Pacific Paradise draws on the designs of some of New Zealand's other neighbours.

Pacific Paradise by Donna Ward, 175cm square, Machine-appliquéd and machine-quilted using a variety of rayon and cotton thread
Pacific Paradise by Donna Ward, 175cm square, Machine-appliquéd and machine-quilted using a variety of rayon and cotton thread

My own quilt, Glimpses, responded to the Pacific's influence in a different way. It shows the sails and keels of the America's Cup yachts, and the ocean that pushes the boats and their crews to their limits (Incidentally, this free-cut and pieced quilt also reflects my technical limits, too. In the end, it was only the parallel lines of quilting that held all the pieces together!).

The designs of New Zealand’s indigenous people are also having an impact on contemporary quiltmaking. The Maoris, who settled this country long before Europeans arrived, named it Aotearoa – meaning 'the island of the long white cloud'. Merilyn George’s quilt, Sing Aotearoa demonstrates her empathy with and admiration for the strong-spirited Maori people with whom she lives. The spiral, fernlike shape seen in each block of Merrilyn's quilt is called koru, and is inspired by the ponga plant, a recurring motif in Maori design.

Dreaming of Hawaii by Donna Ward, 210cm square, Machine appliquéd and free-form machine quilted.
Dreaming of Hawaii by Donna Ward, 210cm square, Machine appliquéd and free-form machine quilted.

Anne Scott's exceptional quilt, Pacific Sunset, also embodies these native influences. It employs some unique quilting designs that are based in part on the tapa cloth – an ancient tradition that the Maoris are thought to have brought with them from the Polynesian islands, or even Melanesia. The tapa cloth – or aute as the Maoris call it – is made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, which is layered, beaten, and then coloured with wonderful patterns using natural dyes made from seeds, roots, barks and berries. Tapa cloths are mostly made by women, and their designs are an expression of past traditions and new ideas.

The orange-peel quilting design in Pacific Sunset, says Anne, reflects a pattern found in tapa cloth. Even the simple pin-wheel block, so familiar to quilt-makers, is a recurring pattern seen in ancient Samoan tapa cloth. Anne has used brightly coloured cotton 'island prints' to contrast with the black triangles – a dramatic juxtaposition that gives this quilt an incredibly energetic feel.

Pacific Rhythm by Mieke Apps, 156cm square, Weaving – inlaid reverse appliqué, extensive machine embroidery and quilting. Hand-dyed cotton top
Pacific Rhythm by Mieke Apps, 156cm square, Weaving – inlaid reverse appliqué, extensive machine embroidery and quilting. Hand-dyed cotton top

"Pacific Rhythm", says Mieke Apps of her quilt, "is my interpretation of Aotearoa: the volcanic land, the sea, the forest, and the integration of cultures." You can feel the heat of the volcano in the scorching hot pink fabrics that were hand-dyed by Mieke. In contrast, the cool waters of the sea are found in the organic shapes of brilliant turquoise blue threads. The tropical flower shapes, each of which took Mieke three days to machine-embroider, lend a three dimensional aspect to the quilt, and make you want to reach out and touch them! As a former weaver, Mieke used raw-edge strips of fabric to make the right-hand panel, and then went over this with masses of machine-quilting. This woven aspect of Mieke's work tells of the cross-over of Maori and European cultures, of which weaving has long been a part.

When I first saw Chris Tait's When Night Cloaks the Sky, it fascinated me. The quilt takes the form of a Maori warrior's feathered cloak, with torn layers of fabric on the outside and, on the inside, a Celtic design. With this piece, Chris explains, "I have sought to capture the enfolding night, the spirits of the land, the hope and belief that with love and forgiveness, all will be well for this our homeland, Aotearoa."

When Night Cloaks the Sky by Chris Tait, 135 x 70cm, Hand-dyed fabrics, torn cloth, and machine-quilting.
When Night Cloaks the Sky by Chris Tait, 135 x 70cm, Hand-dyed fabrics, torn cloth, and machine-quilting.

For more information about New Zealand's Contemporary quilters visit Kiwi Quilts

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Number 11 - November 2003