Love, patience and skills handed down through generations have transformed two traditional crafts into art forms.  This page aims to give an insight into another unique aspect of Islands' life.

Tivaevae (also spelled "tivaivai) means to stitch or sew and in essence, it's the art of making magnificent patchwork quilting.  Islanders apply their unique skills to producing stunning blankets, cushion covers and bedspreads.   Cook Islands women often describe the work as "something from the heart". 

Now this is definitely not a field in which I'm expert, unlike the women of Atiu to whom I am grateful for this description of their amazing art.

Any Sunday on any of the Cook Islands, you can expect to see some of the finest hats in the world, adorning the heads of women on their way to church.   Rito (pronounced ree-toe) hats are justly prized and come out also for special occasions such as baptisms and weddings.  The home of rito hat making is the Northern group island of Penrhyn.

"It is a  pieced or appliqu├ęd, sometimes heavily embroidered unquilted  coverlet, the colourful post-missionary substitute for the tapa cloth of ancient times.  

Even today, on the home island or abroad, a Cook Islander's life is wrapped in tivaivais. Whether for a haircutting ceremony, an important birthday (21st in particular), a wedding or the grave, tivaivais decorate the hall where the celebration takes place, are given to or cover the floor, chair, bed, body or coffin of the revered. They are not normally for sale, but specially made for family members as a sign of affection. "

Once a year, usually at the end of November, Atiu's village or church women's groups (vaine tini) exhibit their tivaivais and related textile works.  Participating in those shows is an honour.  Atiu tivaivais are also exhibited annually at the National Museum on Rarotonga and have been shown in museums and galleries abroad.
Tivaivai on show
Most of the pictures and information above are courtesy of Atiu Tourism Inc.  
I strongly recommend a visit to their site which is a fantastic tribute to an amazing island and its people.  I defy you not to want to visit after reading about it.
Sleeping with art
Tivaivai cushions
Learn the art yourself
Andrea Eimke (right) has been vice president since 1998 of the Cook Islands Tivaevae Association.  And she can help you learn the art for yourself and create your own quilt or wall hanging.   Her Atiu Fibre Arts Studio run courses of private tuition.  Her Facebook page has all the details, as well as more pictures and information about the studio and about Atiu.
A magnificent rito hat
Rito hats and church go together on Mauke
The Gilbert Islands link
Australian, Noema Mahitarkiki - a former Penrhyn islander was just 14 when her grandmother taught her how to make the hats.  She says the tradition started when men from the Cook Islands visited the Gilbert Islands in the 1800s and brought back wives who had been taught the art of plaiting coconut palm fronds into unique purses, fans and hats.   The hats are usually adorned with mother of pearl shell which the men grind and polish. 

Plaiting and Chatting
Part of the custom involves the women gathering in each others homes to weave, sing and share stories while plaiting the fibres around a solid wooden mahogany hat mould to achieve the perfect shape.  The fibres themselves are cut, boiled, dyed and then scraped and it takes about three days to complete the hat.  

Hearts and Minds
None of the patterns is written down...islanders just think of them in their heads and then put their hearts into the work.  Some of the hats can sell for hundreds of New Zealand dollars.  But they're also often given as gifts to honoured guests and family.

Hats and church go together on Mauke as they do throughout the Islands.  I found the fine example below on a pew in the Ziona Church ("the divided church").
Rito hat on Mauke church pew
Source: Arts Nexus, Magazine for Arts and Cultural Development in Far North Queensland, Issue 51, July-Sept 2003

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There's no written record of how or when the sewing of tivaevae was introduced to the Islands.  Some say the wives of the London Missionary Society missionaries, who arrived in 1821, might have taught it.  Others hold that it was learned from the Tahitian missionaries who helped introduce Christianity
Source: The Art of Tivaevae by Lynnsay Rongokea, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, published by Random House New Zealand, 2001