The Islands. That’s what we call them, the soft and seductive places in the Pacific that we New Zealanders can go to as easily as Californians visit Mexico or Europeans visit the Mediterranean.
If you catch the night flight and sleep all the way there, you’ll know when you’ve arrived because there will be flowers around your neck and in every corner of your room.
David and I have just sent 8 days in Rarotonga, the main island in the Cooks, which is the same distance south of the equator as Hawaii is north, and has a similar climate.It is roughly circular and volcanic, small enough that you can drive around it in an hour. But drive we did not. There’s a bus service, with two choices of route, clockwise or anti. Here’s the bus stop. You get the idea. It’s no hardship to wait, even when the bus comes once per hour.
Mostly we walked and rode bicycles and admired the fauna. It’s the winter and although the flowers are not quite as abundant as in summer (but that’s also cyclone season, so beauty has its price) the greenery is fascinating. I did not stop to investigate any species names, but fell in love with the leaves of this picot edged shrub
and this elegant stag horn fern
One day we rode around the ancient coral road (built 1500 years ago), which circles the island not far inland from the coast road, at the foot of the dramatic volcanic interior.This seemed to be the real Rarotonga, with taro fields and paw paw patches like this one
In the main township of Avarua, David patiently held my bike outside several shops selling island crafts, while I searched for what I’d been anticipating for months: a glimpse of Tivaevae. Also spelled Tivaivai or, in Tahiti, Tifaifai, they are hand sewn bed covers common to Hawaii, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.
Gold was struck out the back of one shop that I had the good fortune to enter just as the owner was unveiling this stunning specimen for two women who seemed none too keen to share the experience with me, perhaps because they’d had to do some fast talking to get as far as this.
It is one of several made by a very elderly lady and left in the care of the shop owner who has stored them behind glass and is reluctant to take them out. Although they’re for sale, I felt like a gauche papa’a (foreigner, meaning, literally, 4 layers of clothing, from missionary times) asking the price. Most tivaevae are made for family members and are not for sale. Here is the beckoning glass case
The origins of tivaevea date back to the early 1800’s and the arrival of the missionaries who brought with them cotton fabric that would gradually replace the indigenous bark tapa cloth as the main source of clothing material. But the women of the Islands took the sewing skills and developed a style entirely their own. You see a few pieced patchwork quilts, but mainly the tivaevae are bursts of colour in abstract floral patterns, one color appliquéd onto a background.
Having decided not to trouble the custodian of the glass case any further, I resolved to look for someone who might be able to show me how to make my own. This seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of the craft.
At Punanganui market, a collection of huts and stalls which is mostly quiet on weekdays but bustling on Saturdays with locals and tourists buying produce and crafts, we found two beautiful women from Penrhyn Island (the northernmost of the Cooks, a four hour flight from Rarotonga and with a population of only 600!) famous for its traditional weaving. Who could resist these exquisite fans?
Across the way was a promising sign: a tivaevae in the making
It turned out to be a work in progress of friendly, ebullient Ina Bishop, who, after very little coaxing, offered to show me how to cut and embroider my own if I returned the following Tuesday. Assisting Ina was Iselin Bing, a knitter from Norway (are you on ravelry? she asked) who has been in Rarotonga since January researching tivaevae for her anthropology thesis. She has made her own gorgeous tivaevae which, she says, will go into her “glory box” when she returns home soon.
So back I trotted on Tuesday morning to find Ina in full flight, teaching several women, two Australians and one Aucklander (below) who had bought hers already cut and was going to embroider it herself. Clever her, skipping the scary bit.
This is Ina’s way: your background and top layer must be exactly the same size. Sheeting fabric is often used but you can piece together strips for whatever size you want. The top layer, from which you will cut your pattern, is folded into four, the design drawn on one quarter, emanating from the center. Here is Ina cutting the top layer of a baby tivaevae.
I think I’ll have to make a paper template first when I try this, but Ina is so skilled she just drew freehand and launched into the cutting. Here’s the design unfolded.
The next step is to sew the top layer to the base, around the four edges, then turn it out so the you have the edge of your tivaevae completed before the next step of basting the cut design onto the background. For this you can use very large stitches, just secure enough to hold the design in place while you embroider.
Ina turns the edge as she embroiders. She makes it look easy as she expertly slides the needle along the cut fabric to turn it under. Novices like me might want to turn and blind stitch it first before we attempt the embroidery for which she uses a twisted blanket stitch. It gives a slightly scalloped effect to the appliqué. For a first attempt my stitching wasn’t too bad (Ina is kind and diplomatic) but I’ll need to practise on a pillow before I attempt anything larger. Note that I am not displaying my efforts.
Here is a tivaevae that has been blind stitched all over, and is now being given an overlay of embroidery.
After my couple of hours with Ina I felt that I had a basic idea of how to proceed on my own, so I set of for the fabric shop to buy a few pieces of cotton fabric and cycled back to our digs a happy woman.
Somewhere en route the idea of using tivaevae motifs to knit bright summer pillows took hold. Knitting is never far from my thoughts. I’ll be investigating this further.
It’s hard to leave Rarotonga, gentle island. You always wonder if there’s a way you could rearrange your life to live there.
David, reading my mind, saw this empty stall at the market and wondered if it could be the new home of South Seas Knitting?
Thank you for sharing, Ina! I will send your fabric cutter soon!