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The Lost Art of Lei Making

I fell in love with lei making, and found that there are few sources of education in this lost art. There are few books (2) on authentic leis and lei making, however my favorite book Ka Lei - The Lei of Hawaii by Marie A. McDonald is filled with lei stories as well as detailed instructions on lei creation. Her book is complete in history as well as modern day lei making. Ka Lei lists about 650 types and the book was written in 1978. Since 1978, much has changed, miniature rotary power drills with miniature bits and buffing pads have speeded up, what was once a tedious time consuming process.

The history of the Hawaiian lei is not complex however is lengthy in terms of centuries. A brief lei history would begin in the Paleolithic period, lei of bone, ivory, shells animal and fish teeth and bone. The Neolithic man had beads carved from stone, bone, teeth as well as clay and glass. The Aztecs had leis of gold, and in European pre-christian times leis were made of fragrant flowers and leaves. The Greeks had lei's of laurel and olive. Christ was crowned with a lei of thorns. Asia had garlands of jasmin and the Buddhists made bead chains from the champak tree. The Chinese had necklaces of jade, the Africans, the American Indians all had lei of bark, feathers, shells, ivory , clay and wood.

It is exhilarating to see a Hawaiian lei that is yet fashioned with contemporary findings and methods. That is, "traditional using modern methods" remaining fashionable after 190 years! I have a beautiful and prized red wili wili seed lei that was strung on suji (mono fishing line) and weaved with a crotchet hook, a prized gift from a friend. note 2011 This lei was left in the freezer to prevent bug infestation, the seeds swelled with moisture and was ruined. DO NOT store lei in frig or freezer.

Lei making would not be complete without an interest in nature and the conservancy of what little we have left. Ninty percent of Hawai`i's plants and animals exist nowhere else on Earth, according to the Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i. Nearly 75% of the nation's documented plant and bird extinctions are from Hawai`i. Lei's require foraging in the native forests, collecting seeds, pods, vines and flowers. The wise lei maker who is perpetuating the continuation of a culture and a lost art, must keep in mind the damage of foraging as well as the interuption of the natural cycle of these plants. It is important to cause as little damage as possible to the area and to restock when possible. Seeds from rare trees/plants should be sorted, those sub-grade should be at least given to a botanist friend for planting.

Lei Making - How To

  1. Make a Ti lea lei
  2. Make a Feather Lei

Leis are divided into 2 main catagories. Traditional and Contemporary, with sub-classes of permanent and temporary.

Traditional Hawaiian Lei

Permanent polynesian leis are leis made of semi* non-perishable elements:

  • feathers
  • hair
  • shells
  • bone
  • teeth
  • wood
  • seeds
  • (*semi non-perishable, they will eventually perish after many years)

Temporary traditional leis were fashioned of natural material endemic to Hawaii. Materials were selected (generally in this order) for:

  • beauty
  • color
  • mobility
  • healing powers
  • symbolism
  • durability
  • lasting freshness

Lei were sewn or weaved with coconut husk, olona, banana or hau fibers.

Contemporary Leis

With the discovery of the Islands, ivory, glass, ceramic, wood and semi-precious stones were introduced. In the late 1800 and 1900's landscaping plants and other foreign materials were introduced and incorporated into Hawaiian leis. Many traditional lei are actually contemporary lei, they have just been around for a few generations and have become integrated. Temporary lei commonly called fresh lei, are a mixture of endemic as well as introduced combinations of flowers, leaves, mosses, blossoming grasses, and vines. Permanent contemporary lei may consist of:

  • silk flowers - most often seen in tacky tourism markets
  • satin - common for graduations, some skill required
  • paper - various holidays, little skill required
  • ribbon - common for graduation, some skill required
  • eyelash yarn - fairly new material, commonly used for graduation
  • yarn - simple to make, the makules (elders) enjoy making these
  • candy - readily available in any supermarket, great for children events
  • preserved fruits - generally made in China or Hong Kong, they are considered a delicacy
  • U.S currency and coins - generally for graduation but other occasions as well, it is important to note, these lei are usually never spent
  • molded plastic imitating flowers and shells - general luau fodder from Hong Kong

Materials common for stringing include: suji, ribbon, carpet thread, jewelry wire. Lei needles can be purchased in a variety of lengths and design.

Stringing Lei

There is neither a right nor wrong way to string flowers in lei making. The imagination and ability of even the youngest will create an original. My 5 year old, looks forward to the entire process of both the fresh lei as well as the permanent lei. He enjoys recognizing the plant's Hawaiian name, picking the flower or seed and stringing them. The 2 year old assists in removing seeds from pods. (The dangerous task of preparing seeds and shells is restricted till they is capable of handling the power tools required.) There are 6 basic methods of the haku lei, (translated lei maker) uses with an additional 3 in the last method.

  1. kipu`u - knotting.Short vine lengths or leaves with a long stem were knotted together, as seen with the maile lei or kukui leaf
  2. hili - plaiting or braiding. Used only when braiding one material, seen in the modern ti leaf leis and maile lei
  3. haku - braiding "somewhat", with a central binding cord and mixture of flower, leaf and/or fern.
  4. wili - winding similar to the haku with no knots till the very end.
  5. humu papa - sewing to a foundation. The traditional head lei, or as in feather lei and feather hatbands.
  6. kui - stringing,
  • kui pololei - stringing through the center of the flower or shell. Remember puka shells?
  • kui poepoe - stringing through stem or ovary of flower, arranging as in spokes of a wheel. The beautifl double plumeria lei is often strung in this method.
  • kui lau - stringing flat through stem or ovary of flower, arranging alternating side to side. The intricate cigar flower lei is string with this method.

Lei Day

Lei day in Hawai`i is generally the first day of May and more recently known as May Day. Public schools create programs with entertainment by each grade and have lei making contests, with prizes for the best in each catagory. I still have my first Best in Show ribbon from the 5th grade at Kula Elementary, the lime green flowers sewn together in the kui lau, created a huge green caterpillar. That tree sadly no longer exists, it was removed because of decay by a new wasp to Hawaii. The Auntie (has also passed) that helped create that lei is from a well known Chinese family in Keokea where many of the most renouned lei artists are from. I have never seen another tree of that species. May Day celebrations are so popular that the schools coordinate their program to not conflict with other schools. Parents frequent these delightful programs and were they all on the same day, could not attend more than one. NOTE 2011 May Day is no longer the event it once was, often schools allow the day to pass unnoticed in favor of time and money. Aloha Friday has generally been a day that most business will allow employees to where aloha attire and closet the uniform. However, more and more hotels and retail are utilizing aloha attire including the lei as the work uniform. NOTE 2011 A lei is now a requirement of the uniform in most of the big chain hotel on Maui.

The colors and designated emblem to each Island was adopted in 1923 by the Territorial Legislature of Hawai`i. Except for the lokelani rose representing Maui, all are native naturally associated with that island.

  • Kaho`olawe - silver gray - hinahina
  • Maui - pink - damask rose officially lokelani is listed
  • Moloka`i - silver green - the kukui nut tree
  • Kaua`i - violet - mokihana
  • Lana`i - orange - kaunoloa vine
  • Hawai`i - red - lehua flower
  • Ni`ihau - white - pupu shells
  • O`ahu - yelloe - ilima flower
  • Molokini - medium blue - limu kala

This knowledge is great, but what does it have to do with me?

So, you don't live anywhere near Hawaii nor any tropical plants. Don't let that stop you. A good rule of thumb,

  • Open every pod and fruit to see the seed inside (watermelon is just one).
  • If it is not poisonous, it can be strung!
  • Make do with what you have. Standard needle and thread, even floss is great!
  • The old favorites of every pre-schooler, pasta, crepe paper and straws.
  • The next time you are in Hawai`i.... don't let the opportunity pass you by, grab a needle, thread, a handful of fresh flowers and make a Hawaiian flower lei.
  • In closing it is VERY important when you do make it to Hawaii, DO NOT collect seeds from the rainforest! You WILL damage native plants along the way, introduce non-native species of plants and bugs to the area.

Patience and Persistance for the Perfect Lei

So you have taken a fancy to lei making? Okay how far do you want to take this? A single strand seed lei can take anywhere from 60 to 350 seeds. They must be sorted for color and size then drilled and often buffed. A single strand lei can easily take up to 5 hours in total to complete! The Hawaiian's say'take only what you can use", so if you are not seriously into lei making...take only what you can use for your lei and leave the rest. There is beauty in the lei as well as beauty in seeing a tree covered with pods.

History of Pikake's Hawaiian Seed Lei Now Kuuipo's Hawaiian Seed Lei

Lei making can easily become a small business too.... for example. I saw a few attractive lei and wanted a new seed lei to be worn every day at work. I couldn't afford to purchase 7 leis (nice lei range in the hundreds), being a feather lei maker, I also wanted to learn how to make them. But first, I had to gather the seeds, where, when and how. I was taught by a talented lei maker from Hilo Hawaii, seeds are seasonal and some trees/vines so rare it was an adventure to find a particular seed. After months of collecting seeds and experimenting with drilling different parts - The exact spot to drill is an art in itself, depending how you want the lei to lay upon your neck or align with the other seeds. Stringing was mostly by practise and error, combining different seeds and patterns was fun. Hand sanding some seeds produced incredible grains and colors, varnishing some and leaving others in their natural state, has in 2011 set the standards for modern lei artists.

I finally had 7 lei. My co-workers requested leis and the tourists (where I work) wanted to buy the lei off our necks! The joy of creation became a gift of love. My daughter has taken over and can be found at a few select craft fairs here on Maui, her lei are also displayed at the Bailey House Museum. NOTE 2011 See the links to our website and the store Native Touch

This interest became never ending, because I began to give seeds to home botanists to perpetuate the rare plants. As I began to collect traditional plants for use in flower as well as seed lei making, I came into contact with others interested in Hawaiian Botany. Needless to say, they all wanted seeds too. I now spend at least one day a month, collecting seeds and replanting in the rainforest. Hiking (not so much now in 2011) or driving to the oddest locations for a handful of seeds, covering a good part of Maui in just a day. NOTE 2011 the entire family of self, daughter/spouse and 4 grandchildren now participate in perpetuating the native seeds

One step further since 1998. We planted our favorite seeds on our proporty and harvest from the lei garden. 2011

As in most tales, the end loops back to the beginning. As in generations past I have taught my children and sparked an interest in their culture. My 17 year old has attended summers at the University in Hilo two years in a row as a pre-teen with an interest in botany and the five year old has gained knowledge most children of his age could not embrace.

In tradition. they will return their wisdom to their keiki. NOTE 2011 daughter is now 30 with children of her own who are all lei makers, the 5 year old is 20 and =-} is no longer interested.

Note from web page maintainer: When I wrote and loaded The Lost Art in 1998 there was a lone commercial page for lei and ours... There are a ton of sites now (2011), most have just copied info and called it their own, or are what the new generation calls 'culture vulture' - they took (took being a key word) the knowledge and beat it to death by making the cheapest lei for the highest price.

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