Lei is not only an important part of Hawaiian culture, but also the culture of Hawaiʻi. Lei making and giving are two things that make our island home unique.
Lei is given to someone to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday, retirement, wedding or graduation. This is why the lei has become a symbol of aloha.
Lei is so popular that one day a year is set aside to celebrate this art form. Lei Day is celebrated every May Day on May 1st in Hawaiʻi and honors the aloha that comes from making and giving lei.
Hawaiʻi started celebrating May Day as Lei Day in 1928. Writer and poet Don Blanding, suggested that one day should be set aside to celebrate this beautiful art form and Grace Tower Warrent, also a writer, came up with the idea that Lei Day should coincide with May Day.
Lei has also become an important part of the graduation season in Hawaiʻi. From the beginning of May until the end June, lei makers are busy making lei in a variety of styles, including but not limited to kuʻi (sewing flowers together with a needle), haku (braiding foliage into cordage), and wili (fastening flowers/foliage down to a backing with a string or cord).
Since each lei is hand crafted, purchasing lei for graduation can get expensive, especially if you have more than one family or friend graduating the same year.
However, you can save green by being green and crafting your own lei.
Many of the things that we throw away when we do yard work can be used as lei making materials.
In a recent blog we featured a kamani nut lei workshop that was hosted by Hulili Ke Kukui, HonCCʻs Hawaiian Center. Automotive instructor, Robert Silva, was inspired to facilitate the workshop because kamani nuts, which grow along Dillingham Boulevard, are run over by cars or swept up with the rubbish. Silva stated that, “Everyday I drive down Dillingham and see smashed kamani nuts everywhere. I always say, ʻOne man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ When something looks like ‘opala (trash) I try to see beyond its face value and envision what it could be recycled or repurposed into. One day I decided to give the kamani nuts a new life.” One of the beautiful things about kamani lei is that it will last way beyond the event and can be re-used multiple times.
Ti leaf is one of the most popular yard plants that can be used to make lei. Ti leaf can easily be twisted into a lei that almost looks like “rope” or be used to make a haku lei by working foliage into three ti leaves that are being braided together. Common “yard waste” that can be worked into a haku include sporeless lauaʻe leaves, mock orange, Bougainvillea, and various fern.
Once you learn the haku technique you can make lei, even if ti leaf is not available. Several materials can be used as cordage in lieu of ti leaves such as, scrap fabric, remanent ribbon or a plastic trash bag.
Another readily “green waste” that is popular in lei making is plumeria. These fragrant blossoms come in a variety of colors (i.e., pink, yellow, yellow/pink, red) that are perfect for lei making. In addition to making a single strand lei, plumeria can be sewn to make a spiral lei.
Kou, which are either orange or red-orange in color, can be found on or near the HonCC campus. There are orange kou trees outside of Building 4 and on Alakawa from Costco down to Best Buy. Red-orange kou grows along Dillingham Boulevard by McDonalds and Bobʻs Big Bear and past the elementary school. These blossoms are shaped similarly to plumeria making them easy to strand. While a kou lei is stunningly beautiful, it is very fragile. Be sure to take proper care in preparation (pick early in the morning) and storage (keep the blooms and the finished lei in either a cooler filled with ice or a refrigerator).
Lei kukui, lei made from the leaves of the kukui nut tree require minimal supplies, many of which you have at home. An important step in making lei kukui is picking and cleaning the leaves the day before construction. This allows the stems to become more pliable making them easier to bend, weave and knot. There are two common styles of lei kukui. The first technique involves knotting and weaving the stems together, while the hilo style, which is not named after the Hawaiʻi Island town, resembles the patterning of a Micronesian ginger lei and involves weaving the stem leaves between ti leaves.
Lei does not have to be made with foliage. You can make lei using items you would normally throw away.
Paper flower lei, the type you may have made as a child, remain one of the most fun and whimsical lei that you can give. In addition to making flowers out of construction paper, other flower making supplies include recycled color paper, old posters or flyers, thin non-corragated boxes, and coffee “k-cups.” Floral leis can also be made by “sewing a strip of crepe paper or plastic, or stringing together circles cut from plastic bags.
Soda pop tabs can be given a new life by sewing them together with ribbon to make a colorful, light weight lei. You can celebrate the graduateʻs recent accomplishment by using ribbons in the schoolʻs colors.
There are several different ways that plastic bags can be used to make lei. Plarn can be made from plastic bags you use to bring home your groceries, drug store items or take out meals. Large trash bags can be cut and used to replace ti leaf when making a haku. Smaller plastic bags (i.e., grocery, cereal, bulk candy, etc.) can be cut into strips that are woven into the braid of the haku so that it looks like leaves. Plastic bags are a wonderful lei making supply because they are strong, durable, water proof and readily available.
Through Hoʻālā Hou, a Title III funded program, Hulili Ke Kukui is able to offer a series of cultural workshops entitled Maliʻukaʻaithat is aimed at infusing Hawaiian culture, traditions and values in teaching, learning and service.
Each semester Maliʻukaʻai has workshops that focus on using readily available resources to create something useful, practical and beautiful. In the fall they hosted a workshop on coconut frond weaving and earlier this semester there were workshops on making hale cordage lashing, coconut oil and lei kamani.
Aprilʻs Maliʻukaʻai workshop, which was held this past Tuesday, was aimed at helping participants prepare for graduation season. During the workshop participants learned the wili lei making technique. The goal was to provide participants with basic skills that they can use to make their own lei using foliage that they can find in their yard or neighborhood, a perfect skill to have during Graduation Season.
Three Reasons to Make Your Own Lei
Why should you learn one or more lei making techniques?
Affordability: Making lei using “green waste” or repurposing what would be thrown away allows you to continue the graduation gift giving tradition on a budget.
Where in the world: Repurposing items that would be usually thrown away allows you to make lei no matter where you are. Plastic bags can be easily made into plarn or “foliage substitute” whether you are in Waiʻane or Wyoming. Soda tabs can be collected year round and then packed in your carry on to make lei for graduation in Washington state or the nationʻs capitol. It is affordable, easily accessible and available.
Creativity and caring: A hand crafted lei takes time, making it more special, not only for the recipient, but for you as well. No one else can make a lei like you.
Celebrate With Us
May Day is next week Tuesday and HonCCʻs Spring Commencement will take place on Friday, May 11th at the Waikīkī Shell. We hope that you will celebrate these occasions by making and giving a lei that was made, by you, with love.