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In Hawaii, the Quilt Makers Keeping a Centuries-Old Tradition Alive

By John Wogan

Cissy Serrao and Patricia Gorelangton at Iolani Palace in Honolulu.
Josiah Patterson
Cissy Serrao and Patricia Gorelangton at Iolani Palace in Honolulu.

Iolani Palace is a grand, late-19th-century Italianate compound on a 10-acre plot of manicured lawns in downtown Honolulu. It is the only royal palace in the United States, and was once the seat of the Hawaiian royal family, who ruled over the islands until a group of American-backed business men and sugar barons overthrew the monarchy in 1893. Today, it serves as a museum, and its opulent staterooms have been restored to their original glory with Hawaiian koa wood furniture and oil portraits of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani (the kingdom’s last reigning monarch). It’s a fitting meeting place for the group of 30 or so women who congregate here each Saturday and sit around the large, rust-coloured Formica tables in the palace’s stately neo-Classical Old Archives Building.

The women have convened here for the past 13 years, at the invitation of the nonprofit organization that runs the palace, but their group has been in existence since 1988. They bring coffee and homemade desserts to pass around while they work and “we share stories about our families, and hopes and dreams,” says Cissy Serrao, who leads the group, “We call ourselves a family.” During their meetings, each of the women spends up to seven hours meticulously stitching one of the state’s most significant cultural objects — a colourful, botanical-inspired cotton quilt, whose origin in the islands dates back to 1820, when Christian missionaries arrived from New England and introduced sewing and patchwork to the local nobility.

Josiah PattersonPoakalani quilters gather every Saturday in the palace’s Old Archives Building.
Poakalani quilters gather every Saturday in the palace’s Old Archives Building.

Quilt making became a vital, consistent form of artistic expression to a nation undergoing massive changes and modernization in the 19th century. When the Hawaiian language, religion and customs were fading away, these textiles remained a constant. “It’s not just about continuing a tradition but also a community of friends and family,” says Serrao. “Every quilt has a story. Some tell the story of the quilters, the designer or the recipient; some are memorials for loved ones who are no longer here.” There are wedding quilts, healing quilts and so-called “legend” quilts that pay tribute to the gods of Hawaiian mythology. Their hallmarks are two contrasting colours (usually a vibrant hue against a lighter background), and designs in the form of tropical plants like hibiscus, red ginger, plumeria and breadfruit.

These days, it’s hard to find traditional quilt makers in Hawaii, but the craft is kept alive by people like Serrao. She comes from a long line of quilters: Her great-grandmother was a companion to the royal family and a prolific pattern designer, and in 1972 her late father, John Serrao, created Poakalani, an organization dedicated to the art and named after Cissy’s mother. The group provides instruction, an online pattern store (John Serrao created over 1,000 designs himself) and a selection of quilts for sale by the circle’s unofficial master quilter, Patricia Gorelangton. Because of the time, effort and skill needed to create an authentic Hawaiian quilt — it takes one quilter nine months to a year to complete one 7 ½-foot by 7 ½-foot piece — prices for each one can reach several thousand dollars. They are also quite rare, because Hawaiian quilts are typically made not to sell, but to pass down from one generation to the next.

Josiah PattersonOne of the Hawaiian quilts featured by Loewe at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan.
One of the Hawaiian quilts featured by Loewe at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan.

While Hawaiian quilting is a relatively unknown craft outside of the state, John Serrao’s designs recently caught the eye of Jonathan Anderson, the fashion designer and creative director of the Spanish fashion house Loewe. Anderson was so taken with Gorelangton’s work that his team contacted her about participating in Loewe’s annual showcase at Salone del Mobile, the furniture and design fair held each spring in Milan. As part of Loewe’s commitment to promoting independent artisans, Anderson commissions artists and makers to collaborate on projects that will be displayed in the brand’s Milan store and integrated into Loewe products. Past works have included tapestries from Senegal and Togo and ribbon embroidery from India that were reimagined as patterned blankets and tote bags. For this year’s showcase, Gorelangton handmade a large square quilt that features a koi fish design by John Serrao, and Loewe will display this along with three of her other quilts in the Milan store during Salone. The Serrao design will also appear on a leather-trimmed straw bag that will be available for purchase at the Milan store and through Loewe’s website.

For Gorelangton and the Poakalani community, this collaboration is a welcome opportunity to share their art and history with an entirely new audience. “I’ve never had anyone from Europe order a quilt from me,” she says. “We’re a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To expose our art forms to the rest of the world is something that is really special.”