Issue 9.5: October/November 2006

Dream Quilts

story by Lynn Cook
photos by Dana Edmunds

John holds a smaller quilt by Susie Sugi
of Japan.

Yards and yards of white material drift like a tropical snowfall across long tables. Until a few minutes ago, the room was buzzing with conversation. Now it’s silent; the moment is here: An intricate silhouette of breadfruit leaves, a pattern cut from a single piece of soft cotton, is carefully unfolded. As his students watch, John Serrao guides each branch and fruit into place, creating a detailed landscape where once there was only a solid background. Now begins the work that will take up to a year to complete. Pinning, basting, appliquéing and quilting: Under Serrao’s supervision, each stitch becomes an act of love—for the process and for the person who will eventually be enveloped in this handmade quilt.

John Serrao is the first to admit that his current profession is somewhat incongruous given his previous career: A giant of a man, his height and stature speak more to his thirty-some years with the Honolulu Police Department than they do to designing quilts. In his time, he’s dealt with the far-from-lovely side of life: Gang fights, drug users and dealers. He’s stood security duty for everyone from local government officials to international statesmen, from Jackie Kennedy to Elvis. But for many of those same years he had this other life, creating patterns of intense beauty, each with its own story to tell. Get him talking and it doesn’t take long for the gritty tales of life as a plainclothes cop to give way to ethereal discussions of the philosophy of quilting. Ask him about his art and he’ll say he designs dreams.

In fact, it was a dream that started it all. Back in the mid-1960s, the Serraos were struggling. John’s wife, Poakalani, who had been born with only one hand, was a stay-at-home mom: With four children in private schools and elderly family members to care for, a policeman’s salary didn’t go very far. There were a lot of sleepless nights … and then the dream.

“One morning, my wife comes in and says she has seen her late grandma,” John recalls. “And grandma was demanding to know why we were struggling so hard, because all the money was in the barrel. We thought and thought, but we couldn’t figure this dream out. Finally my wife went to the closet and pulled out an old barrel—
I didn’t even know it was there.”

Poakalani’s grandmother, Caroline Correa, was born on the Big Island during the monarchy era. A highly respected quilter and pattern designer, tutu Correa had spent the period between 1901 and 1940 traveling throughout the Islands, visiting friends and family, quilting and exchanging patterns. Inside the barrel were 300 full-sized Hawaiian quilt designs.


Detail of a Pele quilt by Canadian
Gillian Barnett.

“I told my wife that we might as well do something with the patterns,” says John. “The question was, what? We sat and looked at that pile of paper—how could we make something that big without training? Then my wife told me to draw smaller patterns.

I looked at her and said, ‘Are you crazy?’

No answer. She just waited, like wives do.”

John took paper from his daughter Cissy’s school notebook, folded it and began to draw. He drew his own designs, inspired by the patterns found in the barrel. “I didn’t stop that night until I had thirty pillow top patterns complete. I’m no artist: I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler.” He tells this story surrounded by dozens of quilt students, all working on some element of his design. His protests bring smiles, then outright laughter. A quiet student at the back table, just in from Japan to take this class, holds up a half-finished pillow top quilt—a beautiful floral pattern. “Then what do you call this?”

Big John Serrao, former cop and quilt designer, smiles shyly.

Hawaiian quilting began, so the story goes, not long after the first boatload of missionaries arrived in the Islands in 1820. The missionary women set about teaching sewing, then progressed to patchwork quilting. Thinking it silly to cut fabric into small squares only to sew them back together again, the Hawaiian quilters folded and cut a single design, creating elaborate, hand-stitched tropical gardens or celebrations of family genealogies. Following the long-standing tradition of Hawaiian poetry, they also invested many of their designs with kaona, with hidden meanings.

John Serrao’s designs spring directly from this tradition, and it is clear that his work is as much a philosophical as an artistic pursuit. He describes the single motif Hawaiian quilt as a reflection of the quiltmaker’s own internal state. “We believe the story of the quilt, the motif, needs to be in one piece: unbroken, showing a solid spirit,” he says. “When you finish a quilt, you sleep with it for a night—you seal your spirit into the quilt. And when a person receives your quilt, they receive your spirit as well. If the spirit is in pieces, your quilt comes out damaged.”


Poakalani and John serrao, pictured on the
steps of the Queen Emma Summer Palace

with one of her grandmothers quilts.

This is only the beginning of the Serrao ‘ohana philosophy, much of which John imparts in a steady stream as his students labor over their creations. “Never doubt yourself!” he says in his lawman’s voice. “Start with a dream. Look within yourself. Put empty thoughts aside. Focus. Never quilt when there is danger or anger in a place. Each element of the quilt has meaning: center, border, quilting lines. The center is the piko [navel], the center of the person. Hawai‘i is the center of Mother Earth. Hawai‘i is the gateway to the spiritual world. Hawai‘i is the source of all love and compassion. If the life force and energy is balanced, energy flows freely. The energy is in the center of every quilt. An open-center quilt is like the portal where ancestors can easily enter the spiritual world to confer with their gods, and return easily to the physical world. A solid-center quilt depicts the core of the family, the center of life. The center is completed first because it is the quilter’s center—it is the place their life came from.”

Those thirty pillow designs, drawn that night in the late 1960s, were the beginning of a new era for the Serrao family. “But I didn’t quit my day job,” says John. In fact, he continued with his dual life up through 1988, when he finally retired from the police force. At home, Poakalani began to sew; her first quilt was a ti leaf pattern. John’s face shows great pride when he tells how he took the finished quilt to his mother, an expert quilter. “She was surprised that my wife could quilt with one hand, and impressed with the quality.”

Poakalani is now one of Hawai‘i’s most respected quilters, the majority of her creations employing John’s designs. In 1972, she began taking quilting students, and today the Serraos are in high demand, teaching regularly at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, Bishop Museum, ‘Iolani Palace, Mission Houses Museum and the Outrigger Waikiki. “People come from around the world to ask Dad for help with a quilt design,” says daughter Cissy, herself a quilter and the managerial backbone of what has become a family business. “He won’t do it over the phone. He sits with them, hears their story, thinks on it. Sometimes he has to go home and dream, but the design always comes.”

From time to time a quilt design will appear in her work basket. “I ask Dad what it is. He just smiles and shrugs. I ask who it’s for. He tells me it came in a dream and the person will come.” When they arrive, she says, John walks over to the basket and says, “Here it is, just waiting for you.” HH

Information on Poakalani’s quilting classes and general quilting resources can be found online at