If it weren’t for the sheer distance from the “continent” to Kona or Kauai, a lot more mainlanders would probably be making Hawaiian quilts. But here on the “continent,” at least 2,500 miles away, we often lack the exposure. Based in Honolulu, Poakalani and Co. and its exquisite Hawaiian quilt patterns reveal just how monumental this absence is in mainstream quilting.
The company is the life’s work of Poakalani and John Serrao. Both were descended from quilters, and Poakalani was the granddaughter of a prolific Hawaiian quilt designer. After her grandmother’s death in 1972, John adapted her bed-size quilt designs for smaller cushion and wall hanging patterns. He was the first to do so, and the company was born. Eventually, the Serraos found that these small patterns lent themselves better to teaching Hawaiian quilting techniques like symmetrical design, colored solid on white background, needle-turn applique of a single piece of fabric, and echo quilting—not just in convenience but in lowering the fear factor when it came to tackling detailed handwork.
After five decades of teaching classes ($6 every Saturday at Honolulu’s Iolani Palace) and maintaining an active designing presence even after Poakalani’s death in 2012, the fruits of Poakalani and Co.’s labor come in the form of hundreds of quilts personally and thoughtfully designed by John Serrao for his students to construct. Some are more contemporary, while others pay tribute to older color combinations and quilting methods. A kukui nut quilt that John designed, constructed by Doris Shibuya of Honolulu, features darker colors and less contrast than the traditional Hawaiian dark-on-light but is quilted in a crosshatch design. “This was a quilting style that was used back in the late 1890s,” Cissy Serrao, John and Poakalani’s daughter, explains. “[It’s a] style of quilting that is rarely used today. Most quilters perfect the unique echo quilting style instead.”
More iconic examples include Molokama, which depicts Kauai’s famous mountain. In traditional dark-on-light, it was quilted by Lorraine Ichiyama but designed by Poakalani’s grandmother Caroline Correa prior to World War II. Another, Pele the Fire Goddess (designed by John Serrao and quilted by Tomiko Okada) “features traditional use of dark-on-light fabric, but [Okada] used a darker red thread [on the background] to show the eruption of Pele’s volcanic home,” Cissy Serrao says. “The lehua flower, the designated flower of Hawaii Island, grows out of the barren land that Pele destroyed. Life continues.”
While the usual methods are what are taught and treasured—they are, after all, what has kept this tradition alive for 150 years on these islands—new approaches can yield stunning results. Takako Jenkins, one of Poakalani and Co.’s protégés, designed and constructed a Hawaiian quilt entirely in reverse applique. Serrao explains that it is “a new style of designing for Hawaiian quilters. The reverse appliqué was usually used on a more traditional-style design to accent the quilt, but in this quilt it’s the dominant pattern.”
Serrao ultimately stresses that all Hawaiian quilts, no matter the technique or approach, fundamentally tell a story. “It’s the most important aspect of Hawaiian quilting,” she insists. If this is true, then perhaps the greatest story in Poakalani and John Serrao’s legacy is this one: the collection of quilts and the community of quilters they have nurtured along the way. These new Hawaiian quilters provide the promise that there are many more stories to be told and many more lessons to be taught.
Hawaiian Quilting Traditions
FROM POAKALANI AND CO.
- Your first quilt is traditionally the ulu, or breadfruit, design. It is believed that if you quilt this Hawaiian staple first, you will always have food in your home and not want for any of life’s necessities. (But if you don’t like the ulu, don’t make the ulu!)
- Never sit or lie on top of a quilt. This is done in respect of the quilter and all of her hard work in completing the quilt. If you want to sit on the bed, simply lift up the corner.
- After the quilt is completed, sleep under it for one night before giving it away. This is to seal your love into the quilt.
Guest blogger: Lauren Lang
Learn more about our shared quilting traditions!