A Major art form peculiar to the Cook Islands is tivaevae. This is needlework, specifically the making of patchwork quilts by hand. The designs are stunning. These beautiful and intricate works are made by women. They have great intrinsic value and become family heirlooms. They are often given as gifts of love and friendship. They supplanted the traditional giving of tapa cloth on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals and hair-cutting. Tivaevae is a communal activity and several women will work on them together. The original idea was introduced by the wives of missionaries from England and nuns from Tahiti who taught embroidery, needlework, sewing and crochet.
Tivaevae has played an important role in the daily life of Cook Island women. Since it is largely a social activity -- it is nearly always carried out communally -- it has had a major impact on the lives of the many women who practise it. Despite its European origin, patterns and techniques have evolved into styles which now belong quite distinctly to the Cooks. The tivaevae reflect the women's surroundings and usually employ designs of flowers, leaves, birds, fish, insects and animals.
It has become an important and recognised art form and provides a structured and accepted channel for creativity.
There are two principal techniques: Piecework and appliqué. The first is patchwork made from tiny pieces of colored cloth sewn together on a backing. tivaevae tataura are made in several colors on a contrasting background. The pattern is created from separate pieces of fabric which may be richly embroidered either beforehand or onto the background fabric. Appliqué usually involve two colors, the first for the pattern, the second for the background. Tivaevae manu are made in only two colors, the pattern is folded four or eight times, cut and stitched onto a contrasting base cloth.
Exhibitions of tivaevae are very popular in both the Cook Islands and the cities of New Zealand. As well as being shown at displays, tivaevae are given on important family and social occasions such as weddings and the traditional hair cutting ceremony for boys when they come of age. They are used also at funerals and sometimes the body is wrapped in one.