The Comb of Princess Ka‘iulani on Her Birthday

Happy birthday to Princess Ka‘iulani! Born Victoria Kawēkiu Ka‘iulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn on October 16, 1875 to Princess Miriam Likelike and Governor Archibald Scott Cleghorn. As the niece of His Hawaiian Majesty, King David Kalākaua, she was named an heir to the throne of Hawai‘i.

Ke Kahi O Ka‘iulani (The Comb of Ka‘iulani)

Ke Kahi O Ka‘iulani (The Comb of Ka‘iulani). Before 1918. Hawaiian quilt; plain weave cotton, hand appliqued and machine quilted. Gift of Mrs. Richard A. Cooke, 1927 (2591)

Hawaiian quilt designs often reflect the maker’s love of their beloved ali‘i (royalty). This marvelous quilt, Ke Kahi O Ka‘iulani (The Comb of Ka‘iulani), commemorates Princess Ka‘iulani (1875–1899), who lived through the last years of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the Republic of Hawai‘i. The princess was studying in England when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893. She appealed to the United States president and others to restore the independent sovereignty of Hawai‘i. Strongly opposed to the annexation of Hawai‘i by the United States in 1898, she boycotted the ceremony. Known for her beauty, Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson named her “The Island Rose” in an 1899 poem penned for her; she was also widely loved for her many artistic and athletic talents.

The pattern of this quilt commemorates the princess by depicting tortoise shell hair combs, which fashionable ladies would use to truss up their lovely long locks of hair. Along with the details of hair combs are stylized foliage and the suggestion of the Hawaiian royal crown, all exquisitely expressed in open-work designs. The motifs radiate out from the center in deep red cotton, hand appliqued to a white cotton ground. This medallion style of applique is typical of Hawaiian quilts, which developed as whole cloth quilts, usually with a solid color fabric cut in eighths, like a paper snowflake, and appliqued onto a light colored fabric top. Two sets of eight stars, one set along the outer edges of the quilt, and another set in a circle within the main medallion design, may symbolize the eight major islands of Hawai‘i. Along the outer edge of the quilt medallion is the lau kala (silver wreath), a popular motif on Hawaiian quilts that honor ali‘i and incorporate historical elements. The lau kala motif may be inspired by the Hawaiian Kingdom’s ‘umi keneta, the silver dime or ten cent coin depicting the profile of King Kalākaua on the front and a wreath on the back. The machine quilting done in squares is atypical of Hawaiian quilts, compared to the traditional echo quilting which follows the contours of the applique. It is believed that this large quilt comes from Hawai‘i Island and dates to the very early 20th century; sadly, the maker of this quilt is unknown.

—E. Tory Laitila, Curator of Textiles and Fashion