Polynesian Patchwork: The Tahitian Tifaifai

Starting today, visitors to Tahiti can witness an impressive exhibition of colorful patchwork known as Tahitian tifaifai. The 15th annual Salon du Tifaifai is being held at City Hall in Papeete from now until May 5th. The event gathers over twenty Polynesian women from various islands in French Polynesia to display their artwork and demonstrate their knowledge, passion and creativity. It’s the perfect opportunity to purchase one of these beautiful Tahitian quilts directly from the source!

Salon du Tifaifai, Photo: Sylvie-Anne à Tahiti
Salon du Tifaifai 2012, Photo: Sylvie-Anne à Tahiti

The Origin of an Art

In Tahitian, the word tifaifai (pronounced ti-fay-fay) literally means to mend, patch or sew. This form of tapestry consists of handmade applique designs that often reflect the Polynesian love of nature. Usually quilts, they are typically used as bedspreads or wall decor; but they can also be made into pillowcases or tablecloths.

Tifaifai Hand Embroidery, Photo: Tahiti Quilt
Hand Embroidery, Photo: Tahiti Quilt

There are two types of tifaifai according to the different archipelagos. The tifaifai pû is a mosaic pattern characteristic of the Austral Islands. These are made with small pieces of fabric that form geometric designs such as stars, diamonds or crosses. The tifaifai pa’oti is the more typical Tahitian style. These are made with designs such as flowers, fruits and leaves, directly inspired by nature.

Hard to believe, but weaving was once unknown to the Tahitian islands. It wasn’t until the 18th century when the wives of Protestant missionaries taught patchwork techniques to the Polynesian women. Before that, they only knew how to make tapa (bark cloth) from breadfruit and banyan trees. Today, tifaifai is handcrafted by matriarchs affectionately referred to as Tahitian mamas. These women are proud guardians of their heritage; and many have since developed their own trademarks and signature patterns.

Salon du Tifaifai, Photo: Sylvie Anne
Tifaifai Artisan at Salon du Tifaifai 2012, Photo: Sylvie-Anne à Tahiti

Culture and Ceremony

Tifaifai is a cultural heritage passed down from generation to generation—mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter. It is not taught in school, but rather safeguarded by family and the community. For this reason, Salon du Tifaifai is a great way for these women to share their techniques and keep the art alive.

These beautiful works of art are traditionally offered during special occasions as a symbol of love, honor and respect. During a traditional wedding ceremony, the couple is wrapped in a tifaifai quilt as they are pronounced husband and wife, symbolizing their union.

Tifaifai Quilt, PHOTO: Paul Gauguin Cruises
Traditional Wedding Ceremony, Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

If you won’t be there in time for the exhibit, you can still usually find Tahitian tifaifai at Le Marche in Papeete. The price will vary based on the complexity of the design and the size of the quilt. In general, the process is very involved and can take six months to a year to complete one quilt, but this means you’re getting something that is truly one of a kind, made with a great deal of patience and devotion.


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