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Hawaiian Applique Quilting

While on a family vacation in Honolulu, Hawaii just before Christmas, my daughter and I managed to squeeze in a class teaching the basics of traditional Hawaiian quilting. At the end of the class, we both had a 22" x 22" cushion size Hawaiian Applique quilt ready to stitch.

The coral coloured "Ulu" pattern below is my daughter's project.  Traditionally, the ulu is the first quilt made for the home to ensure that there will always be food on the table.

The "Ulu" (Breadfruit) pattern,
designed by John Serrao.

It's the designs of these applique quilts that make Hawaiian quilts unique. Each pattern is individual to the maker of the quilt and symbolizes who they are. Although many of the patterns use a similar motif or symbol, (for example the "Ulu" pattern), when adapted by the quilter, it becomes personal to that quilter and unlike any other version. Ideally, each quilter should create her own design, but beginner's are given a bit of a break.

"Kanani O Ka Home" (Beauty of Home), also designed by John.
This is symbolic of strong family ties and for the love of home.

Just as with "boutis", (from southern France), celebrating the beauty of the land and the traditions of the culture is integral to the design of the Hawaiian quilt. Sharing this tradition with all who are interested to learn about Hawaii's rich arts and culture became the mission of Poakalani Serrao.

For 35 years, Poakalani (an accomplished Hawaiian quilter) and her husband John Serrao (designer of traditional quilting patterns) conducted workshops and held exhibitions both in Hawaii and internationally, teaching the technique and the unique style of Hawaiian applique quilting. Two of their daughters, Raelene and Cissy, worked along side their parents, and since Poakalani's passing in 2012, they, along with their father, are committed to carry on the tradition their mother started. If you happen to be vacationing in Honolulu any time soon, it's a great way to spend a Saturday morning. You will receive a very warm welcome from the Serrao family while learning this craft from those steeped in the tradition. Check out their website.

Seated from left to right are John and his daughters; 
Raelene Correia, Cissy Serrao and John Serrao

While Cissy and Rae teach newcomers the basics of Hawaiian quilting, John (below)  will sit down with one of the regular students and help them create their own unique, personal design. To the left of John's arm (right side of photo) is the pattern he constructed that morning with one very fortunate quilter.

John is signing one of the pattern books that I purchased. 

These are the 3 pattern books that I purchased. All are patterns created by John and Poakalani Serrao. Two of them are patterns intended for cushion sized quilts, while the patterns in the "Hawaiian Quilt: The Tradition Continues" can be adapted to a larger quilt if desired.

Below I have outlined the basic steps involved in getting a piece ready for applique.  2 pieces of fabric are required, the white is my background and the aqua (a Michael Miller "Krystal") is for the applique. Both have been cut into a 22" square.

Next, the background fabric is folded into 1/4s and finger pressed so that the 1/4 markings will be visible when the fabric is opened. The contrasting fabric is then folded into 1/8s, making sure that there is only a single fold at the bias.  The pattern is pinned onto the aqua fabric at this point and cut out.

For my second piece, I am using another of John's patterns, 
"Pupu O Ke Kai"  (Shells of the Sea).

Here the pattern has been cut out and placed on the background, ready to open like a snowflake.

You may have noticed that I opened it from the right side to the wrong side.  It should have been reversed, wrong side to right side.  Since this is just a small pattern, it was easy to flip and correct the wrong. It would be more of a problem with a larger pattern.

Once opened, (the right way), the applique is pinned into place and basted 1/4" away from the edge, all around the perimeter.

The applique is now ready to be stitched. The basting line, 1/4 of an inch away from the edge, makes it very convenient to needle turn applique into place. The turned under edge is consistent throughout, and there are not hundreds of little applique pin pricks to contend with.

The final step is to sandwich and hand quilt with echoing lines. But that is for another day!

This last little pineapple project was a kit that my sister brought back from Hawaii many years ago for my mom. Mom and I made a deal that I would applique and she would hand quilt. She was an excellent, prolific hand quilter. To honour her love of all things needle work, I will finish this one day.


  1. Looks absolutely fantastic. I love Hawaii Appliqué.

    1. I have liked it for a long time as well, so when I had the opportunity to learn from the best, I jumped at the chance.

  2. Beautiful! I no longer have the patience for needle turn appliqué, but I'm glad you do!!

    1. Once all of the basting is done, I find that this particular type of needle turn applique stitches up quite quickly. I find it truly relaxing.

  3. What a great experience to take that class. And both of your patterns and fabric choices are lovely. You do such exquisite work in all you do that this will be gorgeous !

    1. It's thanks to you and the info you sent me about Hawaiian quilting, and your encouragement to try to take in a class, that Leah and I made the time for it. Merci à vous.

  4. These are all very pretty -- your aqua will look great with your mom's blue pineapples. Are you turning a very scant seam allowance? The math suggests 1/8".

    I have a book and a video on Hawaiian quilts. It was going to be a project for 2014! LOL. It will be nice to live vicariously and see you finish yours!

    1. It is about 1/8" seam allowance. With the 1/4" basting line, it's quite easy to get a consistent, clean edge. The basting idea wouldn't work very well on tiny applique, which I do more often, but I like the way it works on this larger piece.

      Hmmm... . Not so sure how quickly I will finish the quilt. Who knows, you may even get yours started and finished before I get mine done:)

    2. Oh, I don't know about that! Plenty to do. :D


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