Master quilt designer leaves legacy of love for the art form
John Fernandez Serrao Sr. had a full career with the Honolulu Police Department as a patrolman, plainclothes officer and detective but found hislifelong passion as a master quilt designer and teacher after he retired from police work.
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John Fernandez Serrao Sr. had a full career with the Honolulu Police Department as a patrolman, plainclothes officer and detective but found his lifelong passion as a master quilt designer and teacher after he retired from police work.
Serrao, 84, died Oct. 1 at his Honolulu home, surrounded by family.
“He lived his life always in the service of others,” said daughter Cissy Serrao. “He always wanted to help people.”
Serrao was born May 14, 1934, in Honolulu. He and his late wife, Poakalani, both came from a long line of quilt makers. Although he grew up watching his mother,
grandmother and great-grandmother design and stitch Hawaiian quilts, it was not until 1972 when his wife took up quilting and teaching that his interest was awakened.
For the next 30 years, it was his calling. Through Poakalani Hawaiian Quilt
Designs, the Serraos helped breathe life into a dying art while making it accessible to more people and moving it forward. The couple taught quilting classes throughout the isles, including at Mission Houses Museum, Kaimuki Dry Goods and
Iolani Palace, among many other venues.
Considered the top quilt designer in Hawaii, Serrao created thousands of patterns for students, friends and families during his lifetime, including one-of-a-kind heirloom pieces. He wrote numerous books on the subject and became a widely recognized Hawaiian quilt consultant and historian.
His designs often featured elements of Hawaiian culture such as flowers, mahiole (feather helmets), spears and the lights of Iolani Palace. While staying true to the tradition of Hawaiian quilting, Serrao also was open to more contemporary and whimsical designs, including whales, turtles and other ocean life — even
giraffes and garlic, two of the more unusual requests he received.
Serrao also pioneered smaller quilt patterns that were simpler for beginners.
His daughter said he was self-taught, having never taken an art class. Serrao’s patterns came to him intuitively, she said, and it was uncanny how he would connect the right design to the right person.
“He kind of had a spiritual connection with his
designs,” she said.
What gave Serrao joy was seeing his patterns come to life in the hands of family, friends and students, Cissy Serrao said. Every quilt has a story, he would tell his students, and that story is passed down through family.
“The story makes the quilt,” he said in a 2006 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article. “Quilters spend thousands of hours working on a quilt. If someone walks past it, not saying a word, that hurts … ”
Through quilting, Cissy Serrao said her father brought many people together. His students from throughout the world became a second family to him.
“The quilters just adored him,” she said. “I always tell the quilters, ‘He loved all of you because you made him shine.’”
Cissy Serrao and her sister, Raelene Correia, carry on their parents’ legacy teaching Hawaiian quilting classes at Iolani Palace, as they had promised their father.
He is additionally survived by sons Joseph and John F. Serrao Jr., a sister,
Josephine Huddy, and two granddaughters.
Visitation starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at Oahu Cemetery Chapel, 2162 Nuuanu Ave., with a service at 10:30 a.m., followed by burial. Flowers and lei are welcome.