Caroline tells you about the place of the tīfaifai within Polynesian custom…

With its vivid colors, its variegated tiare, its delicate finishing touches and Polynesian style, the tīfaifai brightens up our fare. As a comforter, quilt, cloth or hanging, it is part of our daily life. It is not just a colorful sheet, it carries a great historical baggage and plays a great role in each step of our life.

As you wander between the stalls of the market, whenever you go to an art and craft exhibition or simply when you stop by your friend’s house to drink a cup of coffee, you have forcibly seen it out of the corner of your eye. You can hardly miss it. Even though it can be a wallflower at times, it is not really the kind to be unnoticed… And yet, perhaps do you ignore everything about its origins and meaning.

The Story behind the tīfaifai

If the outlines of the tīfaifai were to be found in the Middle East centuries ago, it is in fact directly inspired from the Scottish kilt, which was originally made like a patchwork. In all likelihood, it spread all over Oceania and the new continent during the 18th century, when the first British protestants arrived.  At first, the wives of the missionaries undertook to pass on their know-how to the  women of great descent (ari’i circle) in ordre to make bedspreads. If it encountered such a tremendous success, it is definitely because it enabled the Mā’ohi people to save time.

Until then, women used to make their clothes out of tapa, beaten bark. The patchwork came as a real godsend. It enabled them, in spite of their insularity, to create out of nothing, to make bed linens with old sheets, scraps of fabrics and patched clothes, it represented a great economy of time and barter.
Besides, this hobby enabled Polynesian women to embrace a new passion while developing their sense of creativity. This valorization of nature and local patterns already existed in old times but turned out to be quite limited by the level of technicity required to work with plants. Progressively, the patchwork became a leisure, a craft, even a form of artistic expression. The vahine appropriated it and gave it a brand new functionality. Just like a still-life, the work captures this lush vegetation we only find in our islands. Hibiscus, uru, birds of paradise and frangipani flowers adorn our sheets to magnify the abundance and reminisce about the state of nature of a civilization considerably moved by Westernization.

This is how the tīfaifai was born, from a mix of cultures, the identity building through the appropriation of an Anglo-Saxon technique. The tīfaifai thus comes from the reo Tahiti word tīfai which means mending, patching.

How to make a tīfaifai

Through the years, the techniques evolved and artisans developed their own style. To this day, the māmā have sewed their work by hand and passed on their know-how from mother to daughter. The Austral islands namely make sure to carry on tradition and offer real works of art. A bedspread sometimes requires the intervention of three women and about a hundred hours of work. The making of a piece consists of four crucial steps : the drawing, the cutting of the patterns, the overcasting and eventually the sewing phase which require a lot of patience and dexterity.

Among the most famous models, are to be found:

  • The tīfaifai which looks like the original patchwok. It is made of an infinity of geometrical patterns which constitute a gorgeous mosaic. The scraps of fabrics are cut into crosses or lozenges and assembled one by one by hand to create a giant jumble. This technique is specially popular in Rurutu and Rimatara.
  • The tīfaifai pā’oti, however, comes from Tahiti. It is the most common of them all, the designs are directly inspired by nature, endemic plants and everyday life elements. The patterns are gently sewed over a canvas and the association of colors is definitely crucial.
  • Eventually, the picture tīfaifai portrays famous scenes, legends, the story of a life or the history of an island.

If it has a significant ornamental dimension, the tīfaifai plays a leading role in the Polynesian custom. Most people pass it on from generation to generation, some are even intended for special events such as a birth or a rite of passage. The tīfaifai is still used as a shroud nowadays, it accompanies us from the crib to the coffin.
It is precisely because it withstands the test of time that we often choose to offer it as a souvenir. A Polynesian rarely leaves its fenua without his bedspread. It remembers him of his island, of his family. Fresh off the boat, people like to hang it on the wall to warm up the room, in the middle of winter.

Besides, during weddings, newlyweds are wrapped in a tīfaifai so as to celebrate their union and wish them to have kids.

But the truth is that the industrialization jeopardizes traditions. Local craftsmanship is now threatened by the sewing machine and the māmā struggle against Asian factories which offer a low-cost alternative.

Even though only a few people fully live of it, the economical stakes are high, as we consider that handmade creations represent an essential revenue for about 8 000 islanders.

If the tīfaifai turns out to be quite onerous, make sure to read between the stitches the historical testimony it delivers. Unlike magnets, it represents a long-lasting souvenir of the islands you cherish.