Saturday, April 12, 2014

Making Leis

Its been a very Hawaiian week. Which isn’t all that surprising, given that I’m living in Hilo—perhaps the most “Hawaiian” of all the locales in this state.

Okay, some of you may be thinking that Hawaiian culture doesn’t have a whole lot to do with either custard or clues. But indeed it does! For I am currently working on the sequel to my first mystery m.s., which sequel takes place in Hawaii. It’s a sort of fish-out-of-water story, in which my protagonist Sally Solari of Santa Cruz, California, finds herself delving into the unfamiliar culture of the Big Island as she attempts to solve a mystery: Whose body did she witness being covered over by hot lava?

So back to my Hawaiian week. Last Saturday I had the opportunity to join in the Kauluwehi Lei Workshop, hosted by several agencies (including the DLNR, NARS, and the Three Mountain Alliance) along with the Wailoa Arts and Cultural Center. (The Wailoa Center is also hosting a lei contest in conjunction with the workshops. No, I will not be submitting an entry, but I will go check them out.)

The workshop took place at about 5,000 feet, on the Pu‘u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve, which lies on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa. The reserve is one of the few pristine native forests left on the Big Island, and is host to some of Hawaii’s rarest birds, including the nene (Hawaiian goose), ’akiapola’au and i’iwi (honeycreepers) and i’o (Hawaiian Hawk).

The first item on our agenda was a lesson on the permit process for picking, and on sustainable plant material collection (e.g., space out your gathering among various plants; remove plant parts carefully so not to damage or uproot the plant; clear unwanted parts of the plant while collecting so the plant material can decompose back into the forest from which it grew).

Next, we picked material for one of our leis. I collected the young tips of ohia leaves (liko) as well as their flowers (lehua), and ferns.

The word lei refers to any ornamental strand worn about the neck, wrists or ankles, or atop the head. Thus, necklaces, bracelets and garlands would all be termed leis in the Hawaiian language. In pre-European contact Hawaii, leis were made of plants (foliage, seeds, and to a lesser extent, flowers), as well as shells, feathers, and even sharks’ teeth and human hair. [Bird and Bird, Hawaiian Flower Lei Making, Univ. Hawaii Press, 1987.]

Here is a short video about dancers making their own leis for the Merrie Monarch Festival (note that a mele is a song or chant.)

We learned five types of lei-making. The first style we learned, lei kui, is the simplest, where the material is strung with a needle and thread. Our instructors provided lehua blossoms—red, and the more unusual yellow—for us to string. First, you separate the individual blossoms from the large flower,

and then you pierce the throat of the blossoms with your needle and threat to string the lei:

This same method can be used for stringing plumeria, orchids, and carnations. In addition, more complex leis—with several strands interwoven—can be created using the kui method.

Next, we moved on to the lei wili, in which the plant material is secured to a backing of brown (dried but pliant) ti leaves by winding a piece of raffia or other fiber around them both.

dried ti leaf (half) and material to wind onto it
(you can see the raffia tied to the end of the leaf)

For this project we used the materials we had collected ourselves. Here is my lei wili, using liko, lehua and ferns (note that all our leis are short, as we didn’t have time to make complete ones):

After a lunch break, we moved on to the lei hilo, which is made by braiding fresh ti leaves. My mom had already taught me this style of lei-making, but I did learn some new tips at the workshop. You start by either heating or freezing the leaves to make them pliant. Then you remove the center rib, creating two halves, which you braid as you would in making rope—twisting the individual strands clockwise and braiding them together counter-clockwise.

our instructor showing us how to add additional ti leaves to the lei

We then learned the lei hīpu’u, which is a strand of leaves knotted together. Two strands are constructed and then tied together, to be draped over the neck, the two strands hanging open in front. We used the leaves of the kukui plant, but many types of leaves could be used, as long as their stems are long enough. The trick is to pick them the day before you make your lei, so the stems have time to become pliable.

the back side of my lei hīpu’u,
showing the knotting technique

The last style we learned was the lei haku, a sort of a combination of the hilo and haku methods, whereby you braid ti leaves but insert other plant material into the braid as you go. We used dried ti leaves for the backing, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use fresh ones if you wanted.

You start by braiding the ti leaves as you would for the hilo style (above), and then begin to add other material and braid it into the lei. Here, I’m adding folded tips of fern:

And here is what my lei haku looked like with more plant material added:

If you want to try your hand at making a lei, there are lots of videos on Youtube to watch (such as this one, for ti leaf leis), as well as countless instructional blogs and tutorials online.

Next up: Saving the critically endangered palila bird.