Feathers Tickle Hawaii's Fancy

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Hawaiian feathered hat bands.

An estimated 450,000 golden yellow feathers from more than 80,000 mamo birds were woven into King Kamehameha I's feather cloak, which is on display during special occasions at the Bishop Museum on Oahu. The cloak, which measures four-feet wide by eleven-and-a-half feet at the bottom, was passed from ruler to ruler as an emblem of the royal office.

In 1778, Captain James Cook described the unusual feather capes or ahu ula, and helmets, mahiole, in his journal: "The ground of them is a network, upon which the most beautiful red and yellow feathers are so closely fixed that the surface might be compared to the thickest and richest velvet, which they resemble, both as to feel and glossy appearance...They (Hawaiians) would not at first part with one of them for anything we offered."

Considering the work involved, it is little wonder that early Hawaiians were hesitant to trade away this valued symbol of prestige and power. In early Polynesia, red feathers were most valued, as red was a sacred royal color. Ulu, in the word for cloak, ahu ulu, means red, though in Hawaii, by Captain Cook's time, the pale yellow feathers of the 'o'o and the more vibrant yellow feathers of the mamo, were increasingly treasured because of their scarcity.

Specialized bird catchers, po'e hahai manu, spent long months in forest habitats, catching their elusive prey with fiber nets, nooses and even bare hands. Sap from the breadfruit tree was applied to the limbs of trees that desireable birds were known to favor. Once a bird was caught, the bird catcher softened the adhesive with kukui oil and plucked the needed feathers. Since only a few treasured yellow feathers could be gathered from under the neck, wings and tail of the 'o'o and mamo, these birds were set free, but so many red feathers were gathered from the 'i'iwi and 'apapane, that they were usually killed and eaten.

The feathers were attached to olona netting with fine olona bast cordage to make capes. For helmets, a frame of 'ie'ie vine was covered with olona net and then feathers were attached. Feathered kahili (a pole topped with a cylindrical plume of feathers) made use of the widest variety of colors. Large kahili, representing sentries guarding royalty, might be in regal red and yellow. Smaller kahili, used as fans or whisks, might be made of brown, black or green feathers from the koa'e, 'iwa, pueo, peacock or mynah.

The only feather ornaments women in early Hawai'i were allowed to wear were lei hulu, traditional circular necklaces made of feathers tied in small bunches to a strand of olona or sennit cord. Though artisans today create feather jewelry and elaborate wall hangings, the lei is the form of feather craft that has survived most successfully. More often than not, contemporary feather leis, or humu papa, are worn as hatbands with feathers sewn flat on a felt backing that measures about 26 inches.

Today's artisans are sometimes more willing to part with their colorful bands of feather art than in days of old. Feather hatbands range in price from about $100 for a simple band of dyed goose feathers to more than $1,000 for a hatband made of delicate, shimmering turquoise pheasant feathers. Craft fairs and shops such as Cook's Discoveries and Kamuela Hat Company in Waimea on the Big Island, and other gift boutiques throughout the Islands, carry these lovely legacies of the past that will always give a wearer a regal appearance.

Readers Respond

Aloha Les,
i was reading your webpage about hatbands and noticed that you have a couple of errors. hope you can correct them. the article by betty fullard-leo has some rather glaring mistakes. i'm sure she didn't write the article with the errors. for example, in paragraph 3, lines 3 and 4, the article states that "ulu" is the word for cloak. actually "ahu" is the word for cloak. "ulu" should be "ula", which means red or sacred. so "ahu'ula" means sacred or red cloak. "ulu" means to grow--in this context it doesn't fit. you may not think this is important, but it is because the article doesn't make sense the way it appears online and people may question the credibility of your website if you don't make corrections. anyhow, i hope you will correct soon. no offense intended.
lynette cruz
Palolo, Hi.

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.