Hawaiian Quilt Designer
Talking Story with John Serrao
John Serrao Poakalani
This quilt was designed by Serrao.
With over 1000 Hawaiian quilt designs under his belt, John Serrao is known as one of Hawai‘i's best quilt designers. Serrao, along with his daughter Cissy, teaches quilting regularly at ‘Iolani Palace and Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikīkī. It’s through his quilt designs that Serrao hopes to perpetuate this small niche of Hawaiiana. The following interview was conducted while Serrao and his daughter Cissy taught at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.
Camille: How did you get started in quilt making?
John Serrao: We started in 1968. We were taking care of my wife’s grandmother and aunt. We also have four children all going to private schools. It was tough as heck. I was a policeman and my money didn’t carry very far. I was paying rent, trying to feed my family and taking care of two old folks. Our grandma died in 1975 leaving behind a whole barrel of quilt patterns.
My wife never quilted. I had never designed anything before in my life. I had no background on that and in 1978 we were still taking care of the aunty. We were struggling.
One day my wife wakes up and says ‘I seen grandma last night. She wanted to know why we were struggling because she said all the moneys in the barrel.' My wife finds this barrel and discovers these quilt patterns. She goes through every pattern and says she couldn't find anything. Meanwhile we were noticing how beautiful the patterns were. I told her ‘Well, we got all these patterns here, why don’t we do something with it?’ These were all big quilt patterns. There were about 300 of them.
Camille: That she designed?
John: That the grandma designed. The grandmother was fairly well known in the Hawaiian quilting community.
Camille: What was her name?
John: Caroline Correa. She was one of the companions of Prince Kūhiō. Her husband, my wife’s grandfather, was at one time acting mayor of the City and County of Honolulu. They honored him by naming a street after him; it's called Correa Road and it’s at the University of Hawai‘i.
Anyway, I told my wife that we might as well do something with the patterns, but they were all so big. You aren’t going to get somebody to make something so big knowing that they might not complete it. So, we started with the cushion patterns. We were the first to come out with the size 22 X 22. The reason for that is I used folder paper to design those patterns which was 8 1/2 X 11 so it kept its size of the paper making it easier to quilt. In that one night I made 300 patterns. I just sat down and everything started to flow.
Camille: What did the patterns mean to you?
John: It actually was a means to an end of what we were going through as a family. My wife was born with one arm. It was difficult for her to go out and get a really good job because of that, so she just stayed home and took care of the kids. After all those patterns were designed I told her that the only way she was going to sell them was if she made time for it. The ti-leaf pattern was the first one she made. She appliquéd and quilted the whole quilt with just one hand. I took it to my mother who was pretty well known in the Mormon community as a quilter. My mother was surprised that my wife was able to do that with one hand. She thought even the appliqué was perfect. That’s when we decided to move on. We went to all the islands including American Samoa and California demonstrating our quilts. We’ve had about 7 quilt shows. It’s amazing that a lot of people don’t know how the quilt came about.
Camille: How did it come about?
John: When the missionaries came and converted Queen Ka‘ahumanu she had the Hawaiian ladies show up at different missionary homes and Christian churches to learn about the Christian religion. While they were doing that they were doing patchwork quilting all the while never forgetting their Hawaiian religion.
One of the most basic things in the Hawaiian religion is that Hawai‘i is at the center of mother earth. The center is where your strength is, so they started to make the quilt from the center on out.
The quilt was always in one single piece, never patched together. Hawaiians never did grab all the different ‘ōpala and make something with it. We started fresh with one solid piece. It’s like your spirit. If your spirit is damaged and you are hurting your quilt becomes damaged. You have to make it one piece, unbroken showing a solid spirit.
It was never made in two colors. The reason for that was because it would break the spirit. I spoke with Meali‘i Kalama from Kawaiāha‘o, she’s quite well known in the Hawaiian quilting community, and she told me to always remember your spirit and to never put two different colors on the quilt always one. I told her I could put two colors because I’m a half breed. She looked at me and said, ‘You’re also kolohe.’
We have had some criticism with our designs concerning the hole in the center. If you base it on the religious aspects of it, it releases the evil. I always tell them that the hole in the center is like the doorway in the heart. You open your heart; you enter that doorway. Like when you say a prayer you open the door between yourself and your kūpunas, same with the quilt.
Camille: Can you explain the mana in a quilt?
John: There’s someone you want to make a quilt for. You design the quilt according to the way you feel about that person. If you know that person well enough, you know she loves roses, for example, or that she loves the crown flower, you're going to include those things in the design of the quilt. That’s part of it.
Number two; when you’re doing the quilting every stitch you put in it, now remember you’re going to put in about 8 months of quilting, you’re thinking about that person. As you go along the mana‘o in that quilt builds. Once you finish that quilt you sleep with it one day. Don’t just give it to the person. You sleep with it one day and you seal your spirit with that quilt. When you give the quilt away to the person they’re not only getting that quilt, they’re getting your spirit too.
Camille: How large is the Hawaiian quilting community?
John: It’s small.
Camille: Why is it so small?
John: Number one is the time involved. Foreign quilts are coming in and destroying the need for the Hawaiian quilt. People are going out and they are seeing these foreign made quilts that are so much cheaper. I use to have quite a few Hawaiian people come up to me and ask me to finish up their quilts. With all these foreign made quilts no one is interested in making quilts anymore, but the foreign quilts don’t have the mana’o in the quilt.
I had one lady come in and ask me to design a quilt for her sister, but her nephew was the one who sent her. She wouldn’t tell me why she wanted the quilt; all she told me was to design a quilt depicting a love being taken away and three dolphins. I told her that everything is done in pairs. She wouldn’t hear it and insisted that there be three dolphins. I changed the subject and began to concentrate on the lei. So I used the naupaka. You know that story?
Camille: Can you share it with me?
John: There are two different types of naupaka. One is the mountain naupaka where the petals are pointed but the way the flower grows it looks like somebody has torn it apart. It looks like half of a flower. The ocean naupaka, naupaka kahakai, is rounded. That one is the female. The story goes that the boy was from the mountain and the girl was from the coast. The families, however, never got along so they stopped the two from getting together. The boy was prevented from coming down to the coast and the girl wasn’t allowed to leave the sea. That’s why I picked the naupaka as a representation of love being taken.
Now the three dolphins, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted those. She kept telling me not to ask. It took me about a year to finish that quilt. I told her that I deserved an explanation for the dolphins. Finally she told me that the reason she wanted this quilt was because her nephew was dying. He had two brothers, both of whom had passed away. The dolphins were the three boys. The nephew had asked the aunty to give the quilt to his mother at the funeral. Two hours after he saw the quilt, he passed away. That quilt became a memorial for the family.
You can go out and buy any quilt but what’s the background of that quilt? A lot of these people are taking patterns from libraries and they don’t know where that pattern is coming from.
We hold design workshops every time we have a quilt show. The shows are meant to give the students an opportunity to make their own quilts. It’s amazing! They’ll just sit there and look at the blank piece of paper not knowing what to do. I tell them to just look inside themselves and think of the person that they are trying to create the quilt for. After about 30 or 40 minutes they start drawing. The patterns are beautiful. They put their spirit and love in that quilt design.
Camille: You were telling me earlier that there are very few Hawaiians who come to your classes at ‘Iolani palace. How would you encourage more Hawaiians to come?
John: I would like to see more Hawaiians, through the quilts, preserve their family history. We have our quilts; put your signature in that quilt. We have quilts that have gone down from generation to generation.
Camille: How did our kūpuna come up with the designs that they came up with?
John: Everyone can collaborate on that. For example, if the families fish they would include something that has to do with that. The taro farmer would select the taro. If the family moves away from the lo‘i the quilt is there. It will be a constant reminder that this is our family’s heritage.