Hawaiian Weaving - A Meaningful Legacy

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Tsuruyo Kimura (front) and Alfreida Fujita (back) of Kimura's Lauhala Shop in Holualoa.

Weaving was once such a highly developed skill that many of the pieces rendered by artistic Hawaiian women of old are considered works of art today. Deft fingers propelled by creative minds fashioned natural materials such as lau hala leaves, i'e i'e rootlets and makaloa sedge into beautifully woven and dyed utilitarian objects-mats, baskets, fans, fish traps, sandals, bed coverings and clothing. The arrival of western man and an increase in trade with the outside world in the 19th century, the availability of cotton cloth and containers, leather goods and man-made fibers, caused the decline of weaving, until by earlier this century, some of the weaving skills had disappeared almost entirely.

According to the 19th-Century historian David Malo, weavers of old were mostly women. In "Hawaiian Antiquities," he wrote, "This work...was a source of considerable profit; so that women who engaged in it were held to be well off, and were praised for their skill. Such arts as these were useful to the ancient Hawaiians and brought them wealth."

Thorns on the outer edges of the long, fibrous lau hala leaves were pulled off in one strip, then according to Malo, the lau (leaves) were wilted over the fire, dried in the sun, and rolled into manageable bundles. He writes: "This done (and the leaves having been split into strips of the requisite length) they were plaited into mats."

Of all the ancient weaving arts, lau hala continues to be the most practiced, not only because hala (pandanus) trees flourished in ancient times and were most often used for mats, baskets and pillows, but also because during the 1930s weaving was a way of life for many Big Island families who made hats and coffee-picking baskets to trade for food at plantation stores. About 30 Big Island weavers still deliver their freshly woven purses, hats, table and floor mats, eyeglass cases and bracelets to Kimura Lauhala Shop in Holualoa high on a hillside above Kailua-Kona. Though now devoted entirely to crafts and gift items with the emphasis on locally made lau hala, the shop originally carried general merchandise when Tsuruyo Kimura (now 90 years old) took it over from her husband's family, who opened the store in 1914.

Auntie Elizabeth Lee was named a "Living Treasure" in 1993 by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for her contributions to weaving.

Auntie Elizabeth Lee is one Big Island weaver who remembers the days the Kimuras drove house-to-house delivering cabbage from Waimea in trade for lau hala hats. In those days, a crafter might get 30 cents in trade for each lau hala hat. Now, lau hala hats begin at about $70 if you can find them at a craft fair.

Lee's first love was always lau hala, but she has also become one of the few weavers of makaloa, a slender reed that grows in brackish ponds along the seashore. Lee knew nothing about makaloa when she began to study its possibilities for weaving. It had been 200 years since anyone had made a mat from the reed.

In old Hawai'i, the finest makaloa mats were said to come from Ni'ihau. It might take 12 to 20 stems to make one inch of a mat. It is thought the reeds were dried over fire, which bleached them white. Naturally-dried stems were red, while others might be dyed a variety of colors.

Lee was named a "Living Treasure" in 1993 by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for her contributions to weaving. Though she has been instrumental in changing the future of weaving, in return, weaving has twined in and out of Lee's life and ultimately changed her own destiny.

As a child she was hana'ied to her aunt and uncle, hard-working Kona farmers who spoke only Hawaiian. Lee adored her adopted mother and by the age of six, she was following her into the forest to gather lau hala and she was weaving simple mats and other items. By the 1940s, Lee remembers getting about 50 cents in trade for hats that Tsuruyo Kimura collected.

In 1988, a representative from the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program approached her about reviving makaloa weaving. The staff at Amy B. Greenwell Botanical Garden in Kona participated in the experiment, collecting and raising plants from Kanaha Pond on Maui, where the longest strands of makaloa have been found to grow. "It's documented that it used to grow up to six feet tall, but now if we can get 40-inch lau, we use them for mats," says Lee.

Lee has taught more than 100 students to work with the soft reed, which she says is far more difficult to control than lau hala. In 1996 she founded Ka Ulu Lauhala o Kona. The group sponsors an annual five-day workshop in Kona the week before Memorial Day in May. Lee and three other master lau hala weavers, Auntie Elizabeth Akana, who oversaw the weaving of lau hala sails for Hawai'i Loa (a modern replica of an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe); Esther Makua'ole, a well-known Kaua'i weaver; and Gladys Kukana Grace have trained a whole new generation of lau hala devotees.

As a young girl who also grew up on the Big Island, Grace learned her craft with her two sisters from her pure Hawaiian grandmother, Kukana Eleneka. "When I was about ten or 12," says Grace, "she wanted us to learn because we depended on weaving to barter for food and clothes."

Grace is particularly known for weaving hats in two contrasting shades, called 'aoni. With one hand and thumb, she holds the hat, while the other hand does the plaiting starting at the crown.

Grace's cozy O'ahu home is filled with bundles of lau hala, hat blocks, strippers and other tools. The stripper, called koe, is a square wooden block set with a row of exacto blades evenly spaced along one edge. The blades split the leaf in one quick swipe into long, even strips ready for weaving. Thirty leaves split into 200 strips can be used to weave one hat.

Master weaver Pat Horimoto demonstrates his skill in weaving.

What Grace, Lee and other master weavers have done for lau hala and makaloa, Pat Horimoto, who is a sales representative for Aloha Airlines in real life, is trying to do for i'e i'e. When his interest in weaving i'e i'e surfaced, he couldn't locate a single artisan who knew how plait the recalcitrant vine-like aerial roots. Horimoto's analytical mind became obsessed with the challenge of retrieving the lost secrets of weaving i'e i'e, which was used to make objects that needed to be particularly durable. In the old days, helmets were woven of i'e i'e, often covered with brilliant red or yellow feathers attached with olona fiber.

First Horitmoto attempted to reproduce a helmet in coconut sennit, working from instructions in a book written by Sir Peter Buck, the son of a Maori chiefess and an Irish father, who was director of Bishop Museum from 1936 to 1951. Problems quickly surfaced. Horimoto explains, "Buck described the Maori twining technique using four strands in a herring bone pattern, but when I got to the margins of the helmet I ended up with a 'V' shape, because I should have reversed direction in the weaving and used two strands as the Hawaiians did."

Makaloa Grass growing in a swampy area on the Big Island.

Horimoto tramped the forest collecting the live rootlets (which support a plant that resembles pandanus), but says, "I knew I should take the bark off, but it was just too labor intensive. When I went to throw it away a couple of months later, it had dried. Finally the light dawned. I lashed the bundle tightly, threw it on the driveway, and mashed it under my feet; the bark crumbled right off.

Horimoto's first successful i'e i'e project, completed in the late 1970s, was a loosely woven basket. He taught himself the technique by studying photos and peering through glass cases at artifacts in Bishop Museum. He prowled museums during trips to Sydney, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Fiji and sought out native crafts people, realizing that the techniques for creating crafts of old were better preserved in those Pacific Island nations than in Hawai'i.

In New Zealand he learned that by repeatedly soaking a basket in dye extracted from the bark of the kukui tree, a copper coating accumulated on the i'e i'e fibers similar to a protective shellac.

On a later trip to Fiji, Horimoto discovered that craftsmen buried baskets in the mud of a taro patch, then boiled them, creating an acid condition that turned the fibers black. Says Horimoto, "Early craftsmen were able to work wonderful black and natural patterns of chevrons and checker boards."

Since his early efforts, Horimoto has perfected the technique of weaving around a gourd, thus creating a waterproof container that can be carried or hung overhead for food storage. One of his finest pieces is the i'e i'e helmet he wove for a stately Hawaiian named Sam Ka'ai to wear during pageantry commemorating the 200th anniversary of the rebuilding of Pu'ukohola Heiau on the Big Island.

Unlike weavers of old, the ultimate aim of many modern Hawai'i weavers is to perpetuate their ancient art. Horimoto speaks for most master weavers when he says, "My goal is to leave a legacy by reviving an art form that was lost. I'm a craftsman, not a scholar, but now I need to document what I'm doing. It's important to leave the technique for future generations.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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