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Hawaii Islands
The lost art of Flower Lei making
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 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 leis of bark, feathers, shells, ivory , clay and wood.

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 plants.

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

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  1. Polynesian/Traditional Leis

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

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

  1. 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:

  • silk - most often seen in tourism related retail establishments
  • satin - common for graduations, some skill required
  • paper - various holidays, little or some skill required
  • ribbon - common for graduation, very inexpensive to make, once taught never forgotten
  • cellophane - 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 leis are usually never spent
  • molded plastic imitating flowers and shells - general luau fodder from Hong Kong

Materials common for stringing include: suji, ribbon, lei thread even carpet thread. Lei needles can be purchased in a variety of lengths and sizes.

Stringing Leis

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.

  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. The term haku is loosely used for the head lei.
  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 leis.
  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 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 work uniform.

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 much sought.

  • Kaho`olawe - silver gray - hinahina
  • Maui - pink - damask rose officially lokelani is listed
  • Moloka`i - silver green - the kukui
  • Kaua`i - violet - mokihana
  • Lana`i - orange - kaunoloa
  • Hawai`i - red - lehua
  • Ni`ihau - white - pupu shells
  • O`ahu - yelloe - ilima
  • 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 deter 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, hey even floss is great!
  • The old favorites of every pre-schooler,pasta's and noodles; crepe paper and straws.
  • If 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.
  • The 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.

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