Hawaiian Traditions: Lei Making and Featherwork

Waikiki Beach framed in a traditional Hawaiian orchid lei.
Waikiki Beach framed in a traditional Hawaiian orchid lei. Photo © Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Any flower or blossom can be strung into lei, but the most common are orchids or the lovely-smelling plumeria. Lei are all beautiful, but special lei are highly prized by those who know what to look for. Of the different stringing styles, the most common is kui—stringing the flower through the middle or side. Most “airport-quality” lei are of this type. The humuhumu style, reserved for making flat lei, is made by sewing flowers and ferns to a ti, banana, or sometimes hala leaf. A humuhumu lei makes an excellent hatband. Wili is the winding together of greenery, ferns, and flowers into short, bouquet-type lengths. The most traditional form is hili, which requires no stringing at all but involves braiding fragrant ferns and leaves such as maile. If flowers are interwoven, the hili becomes the haku style, the most difficult and most beautiful type of lei.

Every major island is symbolized by its own lei made from a distinctive flower, shell, or fern. Each island has its own official color as well, although it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the color of the island’s lei. O‘ahu, “The Gathering Place,” is symbolized by yellow, the color of the tropical sun. Its flower is the delicate ‘ilima, which ranges in color from pastel yellow to a burnt orange. The blooms are about as large as a silver dollar, and lei made from ‘ilima were at one time reserved only for the ali‘i, designating them as a royal flower.

The highly refined art of featherwork was practiced only on the islands of Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii, but the fashioning of feather helmets and idols was unique to Hawaii. Favorite colors were red and yellow, which came only in a very limited supply from a small number of birds such as the ‘o‘o, ‘i‘iwi, mamo, and ‘apapane. Professional bird hunters in old Hawaii paid their taxes to ali‘i in prized feathers. The feathers were fastened to a woven net of olona cord and made into helmets, idols, and beautiful flowing capes and cloaks. These resplendent garments were made and worn only by men, especially during battle, when a fine cloak became a great trophy of war. Featherwork was also employed in the making of kahili and lei, which were highly prized by the noble ali‘i women.

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