Long Thread Podcast: Eileen Lee

Season 3, Episode 10: How does a textile tradition die—and how can it be saved? Hawaiian quilting developed as a unique art less than two centuries ago, but a tradition of secrecy put it in danger until one woman decided to preserve it.

Anne Merrow Nov 27, 2021 - 3 min read

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A career professional at Levi Strauss & Company, Eileen Lee learned about dyeing, weaving, and sewing on an international scale: giant factories full of loud looms weaving 2/2 twill, pattern pieces cut out of four-foot-high stacks of cloth, and no possibility of adding a tuck here or a dart there without retooling. During her years in the industry, Eileen saw major shifts in the market for the company's signature product, as their target customer began to look elsewhere and their manufacturing shifted overseas.

A century ago, Eileen's grandmother saw a tradition on the cusp of changing, even disappearing. Hawaiian quilting grew from the basic stitches taught by Christian missionaries into a distinct cultural tradition, with large appliqué motifs and echo quilting lines. But the quilters who made these quilts didn't share them outside their families; some quilts were burned to keep their designs a secret. Hannah Ku´umililani Cummings Baker threw open her cache of quilt designs and taught the skill to anyone who cared to learn, creating both a wider market and a fresh generation of quilters. One of her students was her granddaughter Eileen, who wrote about Hannah in PieceWork Summer 2021.

After managing a yarn store and creating a weaving studio, Eileen now teaches spnning, weaving, and knitting in her own fiber business, Mz Fiber. From her grandmother's tutelage to a career in mass-market textiles to her current studio and teaching practice, Eileen Lee's story is woven and stitched together.

This episode is brought to you by:

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"Hannah Ku´umililani Cummings Baker A Hawaiian Quilt Legacy"PieceWork online article
"Ulu: Pattern for a Hawaiian Quilted Pillow" (All Access Exclusive)
Eileen Lee's studio, Mz Fiber

Anne Merrow is a former editor of Spin Off magazine and a cofounder and editorial director of Long Thread Media.