Thursday, August 26, 2010

Treasure Chest Thursday - The Imprisonment Quilt

The Imprisonment Quilt

Perhaps the most historic quilt ever made in American History is the quilt made by a queen. A queen in American history? Well, once upon a time there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, with a beautiful palace more high tech than any in Europe or America. There were Kings and Princesses. They had a beautiful, peaceful island nation and political ties with the crowned heads of Asia and Europe. Queen Lili’uokalani of the Kingdom of Hawaii was its last sovereign, and she was deposed and arrested and held as a prisoner at Iolani Palace for six months. During this time she made a famous Victorian style crazy quilt known as the “Imprisonment Quilt”

In 1893, when the ex-queen was implicated in the attempted counter revolution they imprisoned her in a corner room. She was unjustly arrested. Although the other rooms at Iolani Palace are opulent and well appointed, this one room contains only a bare metal bed and a chair. The windows are still furnished with the frosted glass installed to prevent her from looking out the window. It is spartan and definitely "not royal". The one wonderful feature of this room is the display of the famous quilt.

Queen Lili’uokalani was allowed to have one lady in waiting during her imprisonment, but she was not allowed to choose her companion. A woman was chosen every day to sit with her, and to help her pass the time the ladies would sew. She started with four small pieces of scrap material, and the other ladies would ask if they could add to the quilt. Over time hundreds of pieces of ribbons and cloth were put together in the quilt. It is covered with silk embroidery, of symbols of the Hawaiian Kingdom, names of supporters, the Queen’s biography and even a family tree.

Queen Lili'uokalani

As a palace treasure, the quilt is displayed in the Imprisonment Room at Iolani Palace under Plexiglas. We were not allowed to photograph it during our tour of the palace, but I have a photograph of a poster that was on display in the Royal Barracks behind the palace. I was lucky enough to be on the tour with a distant cousin, who pointed out her great grandfather’s name, Ernest Renkin, on one of the quilt squares. Her great grandmother was one of the ladies chosen to be a companion to the Queen during her imprisonment.

There are mysterious symbols embroidered in silk all over the quilt. These include a clock with its hands set at 8:27, a fork and knife, a turtle, a Chinese gentleman with a parasol, a key, a pair of pliers, symbols of Freemasonry, etc. Her brother, King Kalakua, and her husband, John Owen Dominis, my first cousin 4x removed, was a 33rd degree Mason. A small book, The Queen’s Quilt, describes each square on the quilt, many of the names and symbols. This book is available through the Palace gift shop at or through bookstores and on-line at


There is a second type of famous quilt in Hawaiian history. In 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown, the flag of the Kingdom was outlawed. Women began to sew quilts incorporating the old flag and other symbols of royalty. Scraps of the old flags were often used. Today they are valuable possessions known as “My Beloved Flag”.
A Hawaiian woman displays her flag quilt

Quilting is a very popular hobby in Hawaii. The missionaries who arrived from New England in the 1820s taught quilting to the local women, and it spread in popularity. There are many quilt shops, exhibits, galleries and museums. The women of Hawaii have developed their own style of quilting, which is often using just one or two colors on a white background, usually stylized flowers and leaves. It is very distinctive and popular with tourists as locally made souvenirs; in full sized quilts, pot holders, bags and other smaller gifts.

For more information:

The Queen’s Quilt, by Rhoda E. A. Hackler and Loretta G. H. Woodard, 2004, Friends of Iolani Palace. A Hawaiian TV news story on the Imprisonment Quilt, and the story of one of the names on the quilt.

Note:  Queen Lilioukalani married, my first cousin five generations removed, John Owen Dominis (1832 - 1891).  His mother, Mary Lambert (Jones) (1803 - 1889) and my 4th great grandmother, Catherine Plummer (Jones) Younger (about 1799 - 1828) were sisters.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Treasure Chest Thursday - The Imprisonment Quilt", Nutfield Genealogy, posted August 26, 2010, ( accessed [access date]).


  1. Thanks for an informative blog entry! Never thought of quilting as a way to pass the time while being imprisoned.

  2. What a piece of history, and you are very thorough with your research, as usual. Thanks for sharing this sad story, complete with photos.

  3. I guess the one thing the Queen had in common with the ladies chosen to sit with her was the ability to sew - what a fascinating story :-)

  4. Wonderful! I have posted a link to this article from my "Quilts and Musings" blog. Thanks for compiling this information and photos!