Ties that bind: tivaivai is the new tapa

Tivaivai (sometimes erroneously written as tivaevae) are appliqué and piecework bedcovers made by women in the Cook Islands. Similar bedcovers are made in French Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands.
Tivaivai has a special place and purpose in Cook Islands culture where it is used in the traditional social practice of presentation and exchange to validate social and economic bonds.
The word tivaivai means to patch repeatedly, in reference to the piecework bed covers (tivaivai ta’orei) made form thousands of postage-stamp sized pieces of cotton cloth stitched together in a mosaic pattern. However, the word tivaivai is used generically to include other styles of tivaivai. These include tivaivai manu, which is appliqué bedcovers in which colourful cloth is folded and cut into a kaleidoscopic pattern before being stitched onto a backing cloth, usually in contrasting colour.

Tivaivai tataura - pillowcase, Aitutaki, 1950s. Gift of Rev Sturney family.

Other styles include tivaivai tataura, in which embroidery embellishes the pattern, tivaivai paka’onu made from hexagonal pieces of cloth. Tivaivai are usually hand stitched but some, such as tivaivai patu, which features oblong pieces of fabric arranged in a spiral are commonly machine sewn.
Although nominally bedspreads, tivaivai are rarely used as such. Treasured by their owners, they are kept in glory boxes and cupboards and are only brought out for display on special occasions. It is important to appreciate that tivaivai are more than beautiful and exquisitely crafted creations. They play an important role in confirming social relationships and are made to be publicly given on such occasions as haircutting ceremonies, christenings, weddings, 21st birthdays, farewells of dignitaries, and at funerals.
The practice of using favoured tivaivai as shrouds for the deceased accounts for the relative scarcity of tivaivai older than 60 years. Making a tivaivai has been described by some of its makers as “back-breaking” which is probably another reason tivaivai are highly valued and protected from the wear and tear of daily use.
The ability to make tivaivai instils self-worth in a Cook Islands woman. An adage says that a woman is not a woman until she has made a tivaivai.
Although tivaivai may be made by one person, they are generally products of collaboration. Sometimes women recognised as having special skills (called ta’unga) are employed to design and cut the patterns, while the sewing may be shared by a group of women. Some women will develop their own designs based either on a dream, or on something they have seen in their natural surrounds, or symbols in the Bible (a common one is Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream); others follow common motifs passed down through the generations, such as lanterns, tiare maori, taro leaves, breadfruit and pineapple. Other common motifs include chiefly emblems of prestige: crowns, fans, lanterns, and flags. In general Cook Islands women do not use humans or animals in their designs however that has started to change in the past few years with the introduction of bird, fish and mermaid motifs.

Joseph's interpretation of Pharoah's dream

From the drawing of the pattern to cutting it out, then basting the cloth on to the backing cloth, the work is intensive and requires a lot concentration and physical stamina, especially if one is working alone. A project can take two weeks to years, depending how much free time the makers have aside from their jobs, family, or other community commitments.
No one quite knows when patchwork started in the Cook Islands – it has been suggested that it was introduced soon after contact in 1823 by the wives of Tahitian missionaries who helped introduce Christianity to the Cook Islands, or by the wives of British missionaries, or by the wives of American whalers, or some time later by the Catholic nuns that arrived in the 1890s from French Polynesia. What is clear is that Cook Islands women took to the craft with enthusiasm. Tivaivai quickly took the place of tapa (bark cloth) in society after missionaries banned it as clothing; although its most common use was a cloth for garments, tapa was associated with the life cycle, kinship, ceremonial exchange and ritual just as tivaivai is today. Missionaries saw the adoption of European cloth as a sign of conversion. Tivaivai has come to supplant tapa in rites of passage and other important social events. Tapa is now rarely made in the Cook Islands. Tivaivai are made throughout the Cook Islands and by expatriate Cook Islands women living overseas.
This year there will be a major exhibition of tivaivai by Pacific Arts Association to be held in August at the National Museum. More information here. - CI Library and Museum Society