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THE TRAVELING QUILTER: A Quilter's Tour of the Big Island of Hawaii

By Patricia Littlefield

The island of Hawaii, where I live, is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is almost diamond shaped, if you are willing to stretch your  imagination a little.  Fabric and quilt shops are few and far between, but I have located at least one in each of the points of the diamond, which lie roughly on a north/south, east/west axis, again if you are able to bend your thinking a bit.

For example, if you begin in Hilo, situated on the eastern flanks of the extinct volcano, Mauna Kea, and  the largest city on what everybody calls the Big Island,  you will be on the eastern point of the diamond.  There, in an old building that has been restored, you will find  Dragon Mama, which is owned and operated by Utae Arai.

Dragon Mama
622 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo, Hawaii
808 934-9081

Dragon Mama began in Oakland, California in 1988, specializing in Japanese fabrics and kimonos, and moved to Hilo, Hawaii, in 1992.  Since moving to the Big Island, Dragon Mama now sells natural fiber futons (Japanese beds), meditation pillows, tatami and bamboo mats, and Shoji lanterns as well as fabric. Bolts  of organically grown, natural colored cotton Japanese fabrics march up the walls on one side while Indonesian and Indian batiks and African and Hawaiian prints line the shelves on the other..  Of a large selection of  silk and Japanese Yukata and Ikat fabric for kimonos is for sale as well.

Shoji lamps, some floor and some table size, with panes are made of rice paper, provide soft lighting, and there are small, low bamboo and oak tables nearby with books on Japanese textiles and art displayed on them. A couple of futons have been set up around the store,  buckwheat hulls and kapok for filling them are sold by the pound. An assortment of diverse items are also available, buckwheat hulls and kapok by the pound for filling futons, hemp yarn, tabis for your feet, scrunchies for your ponytail, tee shirts, silk kimonos, and note cards to send to friends back on the Mainland.  You feel very much as if you might be in a shop in Tokyo.


Kimura's Fabrics. Mrs. Irene Kimura and
the author, Patricia Littlefield

I asked Utae, who was showing a new employee how to wrap and address a package going to a customer in Germany when I walked in, how she chose the name for her shop.  She laughed and replied, "Well, the dragon is a good luck symbol in Asia, not like it is here,  and I wanted something that would be catchy, so I decided to call it Dragon Mama!"

When you visit Dragon Mama, try to make your visit on a Wednesday or a Saturday because on those days, a block and a half down Kamehameha Avenue is the local Farmer's Market which is a unique experience all its own.  There, all kinds of fresh fish and  produce, much of it unknown to Mainland eyes and taste buds, are for sale.   Not to mention the beautiful orchids, helaconia, plumeria, ginger, and other exotic  flowers that are available.  There are also small, nearby restaurants where you can sample local food if you are so inclined.

As yet Dragon Mama does not have an e-mail address, web-site, nor catalogue, although Utae told me that when she gets requests from visitors after they have returned home, she tries to accommodate them, if at all possible.  So, if you have a yen for Japanese culture, arts, and textiles, Dragon Mama is a must see stop the next time you are in Hilo.

Traveling southwest from Hilo on Highway 11 to the southernmost point of the diamond that  is the Big Island of Hawaii, takes you up towards the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  Kilauea Volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983, and in the process, has created more than 500 acres of new land.  Just before you reach the entrance to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,  you will see a sign pointing off to the right to the village of Volcano.

Inside Kimura's.

After you turn off Highway 11, you come to a tee in the road.  Take the left arm of the tee and drive down about 1/2 a mile until you see the Lava Rock Cafe on your right.  Turn into the parking lot, and Kilauea Kreations will be directly in front of you.

Kilauea Kreations Volcano, Hawaii
808 967-8090

Kilauea Kreations is owned by Kathi Tripp and her husband. Kathi and her mother-in-law had long talked about opening a shop that would provide the fabrics, thread, patterns, and all the things that local quilters needed to make their Hawaiian quilts.  There was no place nearby to buy them.

So Kathi's husband remodeled the 1930s service station that was on their property, and she and her mother-in-law opened Kilauea Kreations on July 4, 1995. Hawaiian prints, batiks, and Moda hand-dyed fabrics are a specialty.   The small shop is filled with a wide selection of fabric, thread, quilt and pillow kits, patterns, materials for laulau weaving, and all kinds of quilting gadgetry, the kind to which we all are susceptible.

Kilauea Kreations is run as a co-op that includes other artisans besides quilters.  In addition to several quilters, including a master quilter, there is a potter, a basket weaver, and a seamstress who, in return for the opportunity to exhibit their work, take turns, one day a week, to run the shop.  Thus, there are also note cards, clothing, and jewelry, basketry, and pottery in every form imaginable everywhere.  Exquisite Hawaiian quilts hang from the ceiling, walls, and on a quilt rack by the door.

Inside Dragon Mama, Hilo.

Volcano has a very active quilting guild, about half the members make Hawaiian quilts and half make patchwork quilts. Classes taught by guild members are offered at Kilauea Kreations, as well as by well-known quilters from Honolulu to teach them. Kathi comes from missionary stock, and has been around quilting all her life.  Her mother-in-law, who unfortunately died a month after Kilauea Kreations opened its door, is the one who really got her hooked on quilting, she said.

Kathi's current passion is watercolor quilts, and she showed me a picture of one that she'd made that has since been sold.  Business has been good, she said, even though her shop is off the main road.  She enjoys meeting quilters from all over the world who find her shop listed on the Internet and stop by when they are on the Big Island. Back on Highway 11, heading northwest, with Mauna Loa, a still active volcano off to your right, you will go through Na'alehu, the southern most town in the United States, and then the road will turn due north.  Past the communities of Ho'okena, Napo'opo'o, Captain Cook, and Kealakekua, on the southwest coast of the Big Island, you will drive until you come to Kainaliu.  On the makai or ocean side of Highway 11,  you will see a row of weathered little shops.  In the middle of them is Kimura's Fabrics, the quilt shop on the western point of the diamond.

Kimura's Fabrics Kainaliu Village, on Highway 11, Kainaliu, Hawaii
808 322-3771

Entering Kimura's Fabrics on the Big Island of Hawaii is like stepping backward in time.  It is Hawaii as it was before 1941 and Pearl Harbor.  The Kimura family lives in a house behind the store, which is connected to it by a little walkway.

This old fashioned general store, founded in 1926 in Kainaliu Village offers a variety of goods, but the fabrics are a specialty.  Owner, Irene Kimura, and her daughter make buying trips to California once or twice a year to select cottons, silks, and much more. One specialty of course is Hawaiian prints of which there is a huge selection.  In addition. Kimura's carries notions, all kinds of craft supplies, Hawaiian quilt kits, and patterns of  all brands, including Patterns Pacifica, which has patterns for island style clothing, such as muu muus and Aloha shirts.

Kathi Tripp inspects the goods at Kilanea Kreations, Volcano, HI.

When you first walk into Kimura's Fabrics, you are overwhelmed by the enormous array of  bolts of fabric.  They are stacked all over, jammed on tables, stuffed on shelves and in closets, piles  reaching higher than your head. Fabric is everywhere.

You wonder how on earth does  Mrs. Kimura know what she has in stock! Well, I can attest to the fact that she does.  Not long ago, when I dropped by to browse just a bit and perhaps pick up some fabric for the border of an attic windows quilt I was making.  I really was hesitant and undecided about what would look best.  Mrs. Kimura took one look at my quilt top, and asked, "How about yellow?"

She quickly darted off down one aisle, around a corner and into another.  (I had a hard time keeping up with her, as she is very tiny and immediately disappeared among all the upright bolts of fabric.) She stopped and pulled out a bolt of yellow cotton.  It was obvious that she had known just exactly where that particular bolt of fabric was. When asked when her next sale would be, Mrs. Kimura replied, "Everyday is a sale 'cause my prices are low, and we carry the best fabrics, not the kind the other stores sell."

Once a year, Kimura Fabrics takes inventory. Local quilting guild members sign up to help, and it is an event  all look forward to.  This year we got there at 8:00 A.M.,  and Mrs. Kimura first fed us muffins, tea,  and coffee in her little house behind the store, across the little bridgelike walkway.

Then we paired off and began going through bolt by bolt, counting the yardage on each, and noting the price and date. (To be able to spend an entire morning surrounded by fabrics of all description in every color possible is truly a quilter's version of Paradise.)

Exterior of Kimura's Fabrics

My partner and I worked for four hours and marveled that there could ever be a complete inventory, since it took us so long just to do about 100 bolts.  Then in the mail in a couple of months, a gift certificate from Kimura's Fabrics arrived.  It was Mrs. Kimura's way of saying thank you for our help.

I now have a legitimate reason to return to Kimura's Fabrics.  I can hardly wait.

To reach the north point of the Big Island's diamond, continue on Highway 11 until you get to Kailua-Kona.  There, at the intersection of Palani Road, the highway now becomes Highway 19 and is called the Queen Kahahumanu Highway or the Queen K to the locals.  Follow it north to the junction near the community of Kawaihae and take the road to the right and continue  until you come to the town of  Waimea,  which is often called Kamuela to distinguish it from the town of the same name on the island of Oahu.  You are still on Highway 11, but now it's called the Mamalahoa Highway. There are only two traffic lights in Waimea.  As you approach the second one, you will see the police station on your right with Mauna Kea looming in the distance to the south.  Turn right and on your immediate left, located between a florist shop and the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. is Top Stitch.

Top Stitch 64-1067 Mamalahoa Highway Kamuela, Hawaii 96743
808 885-4482

Interior of TopStitch. Irene Kubo behind the counter.

Opened in 1979 as a fabric store in Kailua-Kona, Top Stitch was moved in 1988 by its original owner to the town of Waimea, and just a  year ago, it was bought by Ellie Erickson. Ellie, originally from Pennsylvania, came to Hawaii for the first time over thirty years ago because her mother lived here.  She has long had an interest in quilting but became interested in Hawaiian quilting while working at Top Stitch in Kailua-Kona and becoming acquainted with a woman who ran a quilt shop at that time called the Pineapple Patch in nearby Halualoa. Since moving the store to Waimea, Ellie says she has learned a great deal more it from local Hawaiian quilters.

Top Stitch is a neat and tidy little shop, about 600 square feet in all, which now caters to quilters of both Hawaiian and American persuasion as an American quilting guild has been started in the area during the past year.  Quilts, both Hawaiian and traditional patchwork, hang on the walls.

Besides batiks and Hawaiian fabrics, Top Stitch  carries Kona Cotton and other high quality brands, and a basket of ribbon-tied fat quarters sits on the counter by the cash register.  There is also a complete array of  notions and gadgetry for the quilter along one wall.  There are many items here that cannot be found in the other forty-nine states, such as an extensive inventory of Hawaiian appliqué pattern books and counted cross stitch patterns, as well as batik-printed note cards, Hawaiian tee shirt dresses, brass bookmarks in Hawaiian quilt block patterns, and Hawaiian quilt pillow kits. 

Top Stitch has offered some quilting classes and with interest in American quilting building in the area,  they feel that in the future, a need will soon arise for more.

By continuing on Highway 19, will return you via the Hamakua coast to Hilo where you started your Big Island quilting adventure.  Should you decide to come to the Big Island for a vacation, I hope that you will make a point to visit one or more of the quilting and fabric shops located here.

Until then, Aloha nui loa.


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