Seeds of Beauty

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Scholars theorize that of the twenty-seven plants thought to have been brought to the Islands by the first Polynesian explorers, only two - kamani and kukui - bore seeds with a hard enough shell to be used in seed craft. Of necessity, kukui nuts were first burned as a source of light, used as a dye for designs on kapa, canoes and tattoos, and a seasoning for food, and only when nuts and time permitted, were they strung for personal adornment. Kamani, a large, perfectly round brown nut, also may have been worn in leis, wristlets and anklets by early Hawaiians. Acording to Big Islander Marie MacDonald in her book, Ka Lei, "More lei hua or Lei'ano'ano, seed necklaces, were made as new plants with tough-shelled seeds were introduced and became common (after Western contact)."

The introduction of the electric light in Hawai'i probably allowed the kukui to be used more extensively in leis. In recent times, writes MacDonald, "The steel-tipped drill and especially the electric drill have made seed lei making a popular pastime."

Though seed craft has evolved to an art form over the last decade or two, paralleling a renaissance of all Hawaiian arts and crafts, it has a definite history in the Islands. Big Island-born crafter, Hanai Hayashida says, "I've seen pieces (leis) more than 100 years. old. They just turn a darker color - darker brown for wiliwili. All you have to do is restring them and they can be worn again."

Before she made seed leis, Hayashida learned to make floral leis from her mother when they lived on the Big Island's Parker Ranch. Hayashida says, "My hobby was to find leis our tutus used to wear and try to duplicate them. Seeds were done in so many different colors and patterns, they sparked my imagination."

A skilled crocheter now living on Oahu, Hayashida began to experiment with stringing seeds and then attaching the strand onto itself in a circular pattern using a crochet hook. She explains, "I adapted the American way of crocheting pearls that was popular with crafts people at that time (in the 1960's)." Sometimes she combined glossy bright red or brown wiliwili, or gray-green Kakalaio'a, commonly alled Hawaiian pearls, with perfect little sea shells for a pleasing contrast in colors and textures. It was the first time the crochet method had been used for the Hawaiian craft, though other methods of seed lei making - stringing on single strands, or typing multiple strands together to make designs - had long existed. A spiral pattern of seeds similar to the crocheted method also can be achieved by stringing a single strand of sseeds and wrapping it around a central cord.

Hayashida teaches the members of Chinky Mahoe's hula halau to make seed leis to wear during performances. Halau members teach friends and family, and they sell their work to rais funds for travel, costumes and other expenses involved in hula competitions such as the prestigious Merrie Monarch held annually in Hilo. Ipolani Vaughn took classes from Hayashida because her daughter was taking hula and needed seed leis for her dance costume. In turn, Vaughn taught her friends: Big Islander Tuti Kanehele and Oahuan Bill Char. Vaughn and Char often work with small wili wili seeds; 300 of the beige, black, red and orange seeds are needed for a single spiral lei. Like most seed crafters, they don't make seed leis with get-rich-quick expectations, as too much time-consuming work is involved. Vaughn says laughingly, "The Lord gave us all these wonderful things to work with, but he certainly didn't make it easy."

When Vaughn taught Big Island seed crafter Tuti Kanehele crochet techniques, Kanehele was already familiar with the popular tied method. Originally from Niihau, she had learned the tied method by stringing the treasured Niihau shell leis. In the simplest tied method, which can be adapted to seed leis, two strands of sugi (fishing line) are knotted together in the middle. Holes are drilled in each seed through the piko, the point at which the seed was attached to the pod, on one side and angled to emerge at the top. A seed is strung on each of two opposing lines; the lines are drawn together and knotted. Then seeds are strung on the opposite two lines, and these are drawn together and knotted. The pattern is repeated until a tied necklace of four stands or more, which look woven together, reaches the proper length.

Most crafters have favorite seeds to work with, occasionally experimenting with new seeds when they find something that strikes them as interesting. Wiliwili is popular because it can be found in abundance on all Islands in a variety of colors and it has a glossy finish that requires little cleaning. The red-orange wiliwili is endemic to Hawai'i. Orange wiliwili grows on Moloka'i. Beige seeds only grow two or three in each pod and they thrive on Kaua'i, and burgundy wiliwili have eight or nine seeds in a pod and grow on Oahu.

Some seeds are tiny, like the ali'i poe, which resembles a pepper pod, and the black-eyed Susan, a bright red, round seed with one dark spot. Palm seeds require a great deal of work to string, as they need to be dried, husked, filed, sanded and polished. Of the palms, the monkey nut and the Manila nut are commonly used in seed leis. Another palm, the coconut, might be cut into pieces, drilled and linked together with cord, wire or ribbon. Seeds like the small, black manele, or soapberry, and the brown skunk seed, or peka'a, commonly called burn beads, have a natural luster and need only be cleaned and drilled before stringing. Two of the easiest seeds to string are the pu'ohe'ohe, or Job's tears, which have a natural opening, and the brown ekoa, or haole koa seed, which can be boiled until soft and then pierced with a sharp needle for stringing.

Some seeds, like kamani nuts, grow in abundance, while others are unusual and only occasionally found in leis. The 'elepani, or elephant, is an oval brown seed, about the size of a bean with a darker circular pettern on one end. When a lei is crocheted of 'elepani, it bears a varigated resemblance to a feather hat band made of over-lapping, dark-tipped brown pheasant feathers.

Kukui nuts, which were so in demand in early Hawaii are today one of the most common seeds, yet crafters often prefer to work with other seeds which require less preparation. About the size of a walnut with ridges, the kukui's meat must be removed to prevent bugs from taking up residence in a finished lei.

Hawaii's kukui lei makers face fierce competition from the sales of cheaper kukui leis that are made in the Philippines and differ only slightly in appearance. Philippine kukui are usually more oblong, or pointed, and the polish may appear scratched or less shiny.

In contrast to mass production of kukui leis from the Philippines, in Hawai'i most seed craft is done as a cottage industry by artisans like the Big Island's Ed Fergerstrom, who strings kukui at his Hilo home. Two years ago, a friend, John Kimi, showed the retired Fergerstrom the machines he used, and Fergerstrom devised his own techniques from there. "I'm a good copy cat," he says modestly but in truth Fergerstrom originated an unusual double kukui lei with nuts that lay flat, side by side as they encircle the neck "The first comment from people is that they have never seen anything like mine," he admits. "my nuts are hand polished. I never bleach the white ones and I never paint the dark ones. Varnish will turn yellow. Mine are all natural with a finish that's like putting your hand on glass," he says proudly. In his backyard, he has planted a tree that is expected to produce small nuts. White kukui must be hand-picked at an immature stage, so this will ensure him a reliable supply of the rare whites when the tree starts producing in a couple of years. Fergerstrom says kukui strands during the early 1900's were worn very long, almost to the knees, but today the leis are worn shorter, about 32-34 inches.

Fergerstrom's double necklaces are generally priced from $65 to $195 in fine retail boutiques.

In shops such as Discoveries (phone 885-3622) on the Big Island, prices for leis reflect the rarity of the seed as well as the work put into making a lei. A small seed, Chinese-red wiliwili choker might cost $450, though more common wiliwili leis can be found for much less at crafts fairs.

To choose a quality lei, look at the way the colors are combined to make a pattern, and check the workmanship. Seeds should be sized and the lei should be finished nicely, perhaps with a hand-polished kukui nut at either end. Pride in workmanship is universal with every crafter, whether he works with the demanding kukui, the smaller, more colorful wiliwili, or any of the less common seeds. For Island seed crafters, the rebirth of the art has brought a renewed respect for Hawaiian artisans of old, as well as increased pride in their own culture.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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