Authentic Hawaiian Quilt-Making

By Montet, Margaret | The World and I, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Authentic Hawaiian Quilt-Making


Montet, Margaret, The World and I


When John Serrao sits down to design a quilt for a quilt-maker, he knows this quilt is intended for a cherished loved one. It will take the maker at least a year to create. He asks the quilter for whom the quilt is intended and what story they want to tell. After almost forty years of Hawaiian designing, Serrao knows this story can't be obvious.

Usually an admirer will ask a simple question (such as what kind of flower is portrayed) and this leads into the telling of the story of the quilt. Designs are created with applique, a technique where a fabric shape is sewn to a contrasting background fabric.

Hawaiian quilts are usually quilted with echo quilting, a technique where the stitches outline the appliqued design a finger-width apart. (Keep reading for more on this technique.) The stitches that hold the fabric layers together sometimes obscure the fabric design on purpose. This may prompt an admirer to ask about the quilt, and the quilt-maker will tell its story. A Serrao advises his students to sleep with a quilt one night before giving it away to bind their love and mana into it. Mana means inner spirit or supernatural power in the Hawaiian language. In quilt-making the mana consists of the maker's love for the recipient and the quilt's story. C Hawaiian quilts have a colorful history. Royal Hawaiian women met with Christian missionaries from New England in the early nineteenth century. These missionaries brought with them modern sewing tools, thread, and fabric which inspired the Hawaiian sewers. According to quilt designer John Serrao, the missionaries thought they were teaching the Hawaiian women to sew, but the Hawaiian women already knew how to sew. They used tapa cloth made from tree bark for their outfits and sewed it together with cording using bone needles. The missionaries taught the Hawaiian women about durable, sharp, steel needles which made a big difference in their sewing. As we might expect from nineteenth-century missionaries, they thought the Hawaiians were pagans and that they should dress more conservatively. The Hawaiians got a dose of New England-style Christian religion while they sewed.

The New Englanders' quilting techniques became popular with the Hawaiian ladies, and it became tradition to teach young Hawaiian girls the skill. Eventually, quilters began to think it was silly to cut fabric apart only to sew it back together. They developed the idea of folding a whole piece of cloth into eighths and cutting out a design much like children today cut out a paper snowflake. Usually these designs contain indigenous Hawaiian flowers and fruits or other symbols of Hawaiian culture such as ukeleles or canoes.

These icons tell a story. Once the cut cloth is opened up, it is placed on contrasting colored fabric and sewn, or appliqued, down with tiny, near invisible stitches. Traditionally, only solid fabrics are used for Hawaiian quilts. The Hawaiian quilt's design moves from the center outward, representing, Mr Serrao says, the woman as the center of the traditional Hawaiian household. …

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