Tivaevae ta'orei (ceremonial quilt)

Tivaevae are treasured quilts made by women in the Cook Islands. While tivaevae serve a practical purpose, they are used as decorations and, more importantly, presented as gifts at important occasions such as weddings, funerals, pakoti'anga rauru (boy's haircutting ceremonies), receptions for church ministers and, among New Zealand Cook Islanders, 21st birthday parties, gifts to VIPs and dearly loved people in the family and the community.

Tivaevae are made from brightly coloured fabrics, and designs can include geometric shapes, flower and animal designs - though animal or bird shapes are considered unlucky on a bedspread.

Tivaevae are believed to have been introduced to the Cook Islands by the wives of early European missionaries, who taught quilting and needlework. It is thought that patchwork quilts came first, and appliqué and embroidered quilts later.

It did not take long for this imported art form to take on a uniquely Cook Island appearance, with bright, vibrant tivaevae motifs such as flowers and plants reflecting the natural environment of the Cook Islands.

When making tivaevae, while some women work alone, many work together to sew their quilts in women's groups called va'ine tini, which meet to share ideas and sing as they work. They are similar to the Tongan koka'anga and other women's work parties found throughout the Pacific Islands.

There are four main kinds of tivaevae. Tivaevae ta'orei (patchwork), have a large number of small patches sewn together to form a pattern. Tivaevae manu (appliqué) and tivaevae tataura (embroidered appliqué), have designs sewn to a backing cloth. Tivaevae tuiauri are sewn on the sewing machine.

One way of making a tivaevae ta'orei is as follows.

Once the pattern has been decided, the woman who has designed it (who may be a ta'unga - a person expert in their craft), calls out the order of colours to the other women who will participate in the sewing of the quilt. Each woman threads her squares of material on to a thread of cotton then takes them away to sew up.

When the va'ine tini meets again, the sewn pieces are laid out on the floor to make sure each piece fits into the overall design. If the colours have been counted properly and threaded correctly the pattern will work. The pieces are joined together and the pattern is then sewn on to a piece of backing fabric.

Tivaevae manu are appliquéd bedspreads made using two colours. The top layer is folded into four or eight pieces and the design cut out. The cut-out is tacked and then sewn on to the background material. In a tivaevae tataura, the cut-out is embroidered before being sewn on to background material.

Tivaevae reflect not only the natural environment of the Cook Islands, the relationship between the women who sew the quilts, and between those who give and receive the quilts, but also the link between past and present-day Cook Island society.

This tivaevae ta'orei was presented to Te Papa by Tapaeru Skinnon, daughter of the maker.

More information

The following publication may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua  Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may also be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
  • Rongokea, Lynnsay (1992). Tivaevae: Portraits of Cook Island Quilting. Wellington: Daphne Brasell Associates.
Other tivaevae in Te Papa's collection


Tivaevae ta'orei (ceremonial quilt) 1960s 
made by Tuainekore Tara'are, Cook Islands 
made from cloth
Gift of Tapaeru Skinnon, daughter of the maker, 1995
Neg No: B.028821 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa