FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Cissy Serrao and her parents John and Poakalani teach quilt-making workshops at Iolani Palace on Saturdays. The Serrao family said it's their students' eagerness to embrace the traditional Hawaiian style of quilting that encourages them to keep teaching. They hold two quilts, "Carnation" and "Hawaiian Baby Rose," given to them by former student Tomiko Akada, now a certified instructor of quilt design in Kobe, Japan.
A family’s legacy
After inheriting dozens of quilt patterns from a relative, the Serraos uphold a family tradition of design while sharing their knowledge beyond their family
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The remnants of Poakalani Serrao's late grandmother's gift sits in her family room; the fixture is as much a part of the common room as a couch or TV remote control would be in most every household.
Hawaiian Quilt Workshops
» Time: 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays
» Place: Iolani Palace
» Cost: $6 per class
» Call: 521-1568
In some ways the location of the barrel is a tribute to Caroline Correa, who passed the gift of more than 300 Hawaiian quilt patterns on to her granddaughter after her death; the patterns are enclosed in one of their original containers.
"Whenever we moved, we always kept it," said Serrao.
The wooden barrel, one of three, came into Serrao's possession in 1967, occupying a significant space not just because of the memory associated with her grandmother, but because quilting has since become such a big part of the family's everyday life.
The common room is also where the new generation of quilt makers keep the hand-drawn stencils designed by Serrao's husband, John, a master quilt designer and retired member of the Honolulu Police Department. Cushion-sized quilts, all designed by John and hand-sewn by Serrao, hang on the walls, and other materials related to quilt design lie on a nearby desk.
Serrao's grandmother collected both popular patterns and designed original patterns throughout her life. One such design, cut out of a crisp sheet of newsprint, is clearly stamped with the date: 1923.
COURTESY CISSY SERRAO
Quilts made by students of the Serraos were displayed at the "2007 Quilt Show": "Hula Gecko," from top left, quilted and designed by Pineapple Keiko Nakamura; "Hilo Beauty," quilted by instructor Yuki Orikasa; and from bottom left, Caroline Correa Hawaiian Quilt Pattern Collection; "Kahili," quilted by Michiyo Shirai, pattern by John Serrao Design; and "Heleconia," designed and quilted by Fukiko Nakamura.
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After more than five decades together, John and Poakalani Serrao could probably recite almost every detail about each other. A close-knit couple with four children and two granddaughters, the two exude warmth, caring and togetherness after 53 years of marriage.
But when they were newlyweds, they had a lot to learn about each other. Among their discoveries: Both of their families had come from a long line of quilt makers.
They learned this years after the death of Poakalani's grandmother Caroline Correa, who had bequeathed the granddaughter she raised three barrels, among other items. Poakalani had never looked to see what was inside the containers and mostly forgot about them, except when she needed to pack them up with other belongings when the family moved.
It was a dream that made her take a second look at the barrels stored inside a closet, a few years after Correa's death.
"I saw my grandmother, and she told me to look inside the closet," said Serrao, who did just that and found the containers held 350 quilt designs, some original and some collected by Correa.
In talking about he gift, the couple learned their families' quilting history. "We had no idea we both came from quilting families," said Poakalani, who remembered as a young child hearing the stories behind many of the designs by her grandmother.
At the time of their discovery, "I had four children in private school, and living was kind of hard," said Poakalani, who was caring for her family of six on her husband's salary as a member of the Honolulu Police Department.
They saw selling quilt patterns as a way to earn extra money and decided to test the market, at first selling smaller versions of patterns for $5 to people interested in learning how to quilt. The couple gradually began taking their interest a step further: In 1972 they began teaching classes at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace, with John creating his own designs and Poakalani hand-stitching the quilts. The family has since stored Correa's remaining designs.
John's original designs now number more than 1,000; the Serraos have a reputation as a top family of quilters, having taught in America Samoa and Japan as well here. Their influence also extends beyond the classroom: The family has written five books on the subject, with daughter Cissy penning articles for magazines and books.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Cissy Serrao and her father, John, hold out the quilt "Hawaiian Baby Rose." Tomiko Akada, now an instructor in quilt design in Kobe, Japan, made the quilt as a gift of gratitude to the family. Akada got her certification, as required in Japan, after taking their class.
ALL ASPECTS of quilt-making are now carried on by the couple and two of their four children, Cissy and Raelene. On Saturdays, John leads a quilt design workshop at Iolani Palace, with assistance from Poakalani, Raelene and Cissy in teaching the do's and don'ts to a new group of participants eager to learn the tradition. Between 30 and 50 students attend their class each week.
"All the students have a desire to make something special for another person," said John, who also designs quilt patterns in class, based on the information a student has shared. He gives the pattern back to the student after they've mastered appliquéing and other techniques. With the class looking on, a student will sometimes ask for a variation on a design that John has planned for another student.
"I have to say, 'Sorry, it's not your story,'" said John.
"There's a story for every quilt," Poakalani said.
BORN WITH only one hand, Poakalani learned the basics of Hawaiian quilt-making from her grandmother and learned early how to compensate by using her knee as a brace.
John's mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were also quilt makers. Quilting is a tradition they are willing to teach to new people willing to receive the methods of old, said Poakalani. "It's important to pass on the spiritual side of quilting to our students."
Their class also covers the historical aspect of quilting, with Raelene imparting the legacy quilting has played upon Hawaiian culture. Their students' desire to learn is the reason the family is willing to pass on their knowledge of quilt design, both as a technique and as a tradition.
"What was passed on to my mother, we pass on to our students," said Raelene. "And when one of my dad's designs is open in front of you, and you see one-fourth of the design, the student is then (motivated) to put out the design. ... What we have in our work is something that's been built up in our wonderful family."