|Where to find the valuable seeds, how to clean
and polish the raw nut or shell, how and where to drill each seed for the
specific lei to be made and how to string in creating a master peice. I
have only made a few leis - 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 lei is
not complex however is lengthy in terms of centuries. A brief lei history
would begin in the Paleolithic period, leis 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
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 leis of bark, feathers, shells, ivory , clay
It is exhilarating to see
a lei that is 'Polynesian' yet fashioned with contemporary methods. That
is, a traditional element using modernistic 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 by a crotchet hook, a
prized gift from a friend.
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. It
is also important to recognize places of business or common areas that
have utilized native plants in their landscape. Please visit Maui's Cosco,
Lower Main Industrial, Maui Mall parking lot, Grand Wailea Hotel and note
their plantings. More importantly, please call the managers of these sites
and thank them for their thoughtful choice. Maui county road crews have
been planting beds of hinahina and ilima in the center mediums, kukui
trees line the intersection of Hana and Haleakala Hwy. A big pat on the
back of Mayor Linda Lingle for her perpetuation of native Hawai`ian
Leis are divided into 2
main catagories. Polynesian/Traditional and Contemporary,
with sub-classes of permanent and temporary.
- Polynesian/Traditional Leis
leis are leis made of semi* non-perishable elements:
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:
Leis 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 leis. Many
traditional leis are truly contemporary leis, they have just been around
for a few generations and have become integrated as much of recent
Hawai`i is. Temporary leis now commonly called fresh leis, are a
mixture of endemic as well as introduced combinations of flowers,
leaves, mosses, blossoming grasses, and vines. Permanent contemporary
leis may consist of:
- most often seen in tourism related retail establishments
- common for graduations, some skill required
- various holidays, little or some skill required
- common for graduation, very inexpensive to make, once taught never
- fairly new material, commonly used for graduation
- simple to make, the makules (elders) enjoy making these
- readily available in any supermarket, great for children events
fruits - generally made in China or Hong Kong, they are considered a
currency and coins - generally for graduation but other occasions as
well, it is important to note, these leis are usually never spent
plastic imitating flowers and shells - general luau fodder from Hong
Materials common for stringing include: suji,
ribbon, lei thread even carpet thread. Lei needles can be purchased in a
variety of lengths and sizes.
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 Hawai`ian 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.
- kipu`u - knotting.Short vine lengths or leaves
with a long stem were knotted together, as seen with the maile lei or
- hili - plaiting or braiding. Used only when
braiding one material, seen in the modern ti leaf leis and maile lei
- haku - braiding "somewhat", with a
central binding cord and mixture of flower, leaf and/or fern. The term
haku is loosely used for the head lei.
- wili - winding similar to the haku with no
knots till the very end.
- humu papa - sewing to a foundation. The
traditional head lei, or as in feather leis.
- kui - stringing,
pololei - stringing through the center of the flower or shell.
Remember puka shells?
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.
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 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 destroyed because it's yearly fall of leaves
created too much debris. 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 each other. Parents frequent these delightful
programs and were they all on the same day, could not attend more than
one. 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
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
fauna that are naturally associated with that island. The pupu shell
representing Ni`ihau, and the limu kala representing Molokini, though not
fauna do aptly represent their designated island. Molokini is sparse with
no plants growing on it, however there is abundant seaweed. The shells of
Ni`ihau can only be found on that island, they are rare, expensive and
- silver gray - hinahina
- pink - damask rose officially lokelani is listed
- silver green - the kukui
- violet - mokihana
- orange - kaunoloa
- red - lehua
- white - pupu shells
- yelloe - ilima
- 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 deter you. A good rule of thumb,
every pod and fruit to see the seed inside (watermelon is just one).
it is not poisonous, it can be strung!
do with what you have. Standard needle and thread, hey even floss is
old favorites of every pre-schooler,pasta's and noodles; crepe paper
you are a bit more serious about this, check out the bead section of
the craft store, there you will find beading wire, clasps, hooks,
etc. AND still open every pod you see. If you see a nice looking
seed and it is hard, it is stringable. Canna, my favorite for leis
is called ali`i poe in Hawaii. A very rare lei, yet a very commonly
found seed. More hints? The common manila palms; after the red
"date" falls to the ground and dries, under a bit of husk
is a beautifl nut. The bundles of brownish 'dates' found hanging
from another common palm in clusters, also dry and fall to the
ground. They can then be husked, really no more than an ugly black
shell, BUT inside is a beautiful mohogany colored nut. More hints?
The common plant used for hedges, Tiare, makes a wonderful lei.
Papaya flowers and pansies, baby's breath and boston fern make an
awesome head lei.
next time you are in Hawai`i.... don't let the opportunity pass you
by, grab a needle, thread a handful of flowers and make a lei.
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 blossoms.
History of Pikake's Lei
Lei making can easily become a small business
too.... take myself for example. I saw a few attractive leis 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 crafter I also wanted to
learn how to make them. But first, I had to gather the seeds, where, when
and how. Many seeds are seasonal and some trees/vines so rare it was an
adventure to find a particular seed. After months of collecting seeds and
listening to every bit of lei gossip I could, I purchased a drummel drill
and began to drill seeds. 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 , became a challenge.
I finally had 7 leis and only one had been given
as a gift. My co-workers requested leis and the tourists (where I work)
wanted to buy the leis of 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.
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
week, 5-7 hours collecting seeds and often replanting in the rainforest.
Often hiking or driving to the oddest locations for a handful of seeds,
covering a good part of Maui in just a day.
infomation on Flower Lei's, go to: