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It’s not too late to make or give a lei during this celebratory season! Here, Ho‘okahua Cultural Vibrancy Group Cultural Specialist Kaleonahe Kauahi-Daniels KSK’91 shares a tutorial on how to fashion a hilo-style tī leaf lei.

Nā ‘ano hana lei: Types of lei-making

May. 18, 2021

  • KS Ho’okahua Cultural Vibrancy Group

It’s not too late to make or give a lei during this celebratory month! In this Kūkahekahe Cultural Conversations column, the Hoʻokahua hui shares their knowledge of lei-making techniques, including a video tutorial of how to make a hilo-style tī leaf lei by Cultural Specialist Kaleonahe Kauahi-Daniels KSK’91.

Lei ‘o uka i ka ‘ohu, Lei ‘o loko i ke aloha.
“The mist wreaths the uplands, love adorns the heart.”

The making and giving of lei is significant to Hawaiians and all who call Hawai‘i home. Aloha and good intentions are infused in the entire process – from collecting and prepping materials, to stringing, braiding, or weaving and finally in gifting. Read on to learn more about these fascinating techniques. And in the future, try making lei for those you love and admire, or to wear yourself!

Lei hilo
A very popular and covenient lei-making method is known as hilo. Hilo means to twist or braid and is used not only for lei but in the making of cordage.

Lāʻī (tī leaves) are the most common material used for lei hilo. This technique and style of lei is great because lāʻī are readily available and they possess cleansing and healing properties associated with safety and purity.

To make a lei lāʻi, two stripped or cut pieces of lā‘ī are twisted together to form a rope. Lāʻī is prepared and softened for this style of lei by ironing the leaves on low heat, heating them in the microwave in increments of 15 seconds until softened, boiling in a pot of water, or rolling them up and putting them into the freezer overnight.

Watch the tutorial above on lei lāʻī hilo by KS Cultural Specialist Kaleonahe Kauahi-Daniels KSK ‘91 to make your own lei!

Lei hīpuʻu/ lei kīpuʻu
Another method of lei-making is known as hīpuʻu or kīpuʻu. Hīpuʻu refers to a knot, bond, fastening, or the act of tying a knot. Lei hīpuʻu are often made with lau kukui, the leaves of the kukui tree, which have long, flexible, and durable stems. To make a lei hīpuʻu kukui, face a leaf downwards, and overlap onto it another downward-facing kukui leaf. Tie the two leaves securely together with a knot at their stems. Continue this process by adding more leaves and knotting their stems; this will form the chain of lau kukui that will make up your lei.

Lei haku
Haku means to braid. It also means to create and to arrange in order, both of which apply to this technique. A lei haku has at least two types of flower materials incorporated into the lei using a three-strand braid. Nowadays, people mistakenly refer to nearly all lei poʻo, or lei that are worn on our heads, as haku lei; but haku refers to the style of lei-making, not where the lei is worn. Annually, KS staff at Kawaiahaʻo Plaza have created a long and impressive lei haku to drape on the statue of Kamehameha ‘Ekahi at Aliʻiōlani Hale for Kamehameha Day celebrations.

Lei wili
Wili means to wind and is a common method of lei-making known for its durability and versatility. Any variety of flower and foliage are bound onto a base using lāʻī or some type of twine such as raffia, string, or even floral wire. As in lei haku, the maker of lei wili creates his or her pattern of choice by selecting materials based on color, shape, texture, and meaning. Experienced lei makers may hide the exposed twine by cleverly securing ferns to form a backing which redirects the heat of the body away from the lei, allowing more delicate blooms to last longer.

Lei hili
Hili means to braid or plait. Unlike lei haku, which uses at least two types of floral materials, lei hili are braided using only one type of material. Ferns and vines are commonly used for this method. Fragrant maile, luxurious palapalai ferns and bright yellow-orange kauna‘oa are favorite lei hili.

Lei humupapa
To make a lei humupapa, materials are sewn to a backing. Feather lei that adorn pāpale (hats), and the beautiful floral lei worn by horses during our annual parades are all lei humupapa. Foliage is sewn using a string and needle onto a strip of lāʻī, lau hala (pandanus leaves), felt, burlap, or other material. The size of the needle and strength of the string used depends on the type of foliage and flowers used in the lei. A dainty sewing needle is used for delicate blooms or feathers while sturdier needles for carpets or upholstery are sometimes preferred to attach thicker and heavy flowers and foliage.

Lei kui
The most common and beloved of our lei-making traditions is lei kui. Kui is the term for needle, and refers to piercing or stringing things together. Lei kui are most often worn around the neck, lei ‘āʻī. Specialized lei needles ranging in length from 10-18 inches are easily purchased at craft or grocery stores in Hawaiʻi. Multiple blossoms can be pierced and bunched together on the length of the needle, and then pulled gently along onto the string in sections to create a lei kui. Flowers such as ginger, pīkake, pakalana, and plumeria are island favorites that are made using this efficient time-honored technique.

If lei needles are not available, any needle-like object capable of gently piercing the blossom and allowing for delicate transfer on to a piece of string can do the trick. Enterprising lei makers have been known to use waxed dental floss in a pinch. For the delicate flowers of the pungent pua kenikeni, some lei-makers prefer using soft synthentic twine or even very thin strips of material instead of string, which can easily cut and bruise the flower. 

The kui technique is also used to string the aromatic keys of the hala (pandanus fruit), nuts such as kukui and kamani, seeds like kākalaioa and Job’s Tears, and especially our precious shells – pūpū Niʻihau. 

Don’t let another graduation or birthday celebration go by without trying out one of these many lei-making techniques. But truly, you don’t need a special occasion to make and wear a lei – every day is a lei-worthy celebration here in our beloved Hawaiʻi home.

Left: “Mento” Mele Apana and KS Cultural Specialist Hauʻoli Akaka smile for the camera; Hauʻoli is wearing a lei hīpuʻu Maikonekia, a Micronesian-style lei made of kukui leaves using the Hawaiian knotting technique. Right: Kaʻanoʻi Akaka teaches others to make lei hīpuʻu Maikonekia.

KS staff at Kawaiahaʻo Plaza haku lei for Kamehameha using various foliage, including, lauaʻe and palapalai.

A lei wili made for Nainoa Thompson by Hauʻoli Akaka for the Mālama Honua homecoming celebrations.

KSK’23 haumana Pōmai Kauahi-Daniels learned to make lei hili kaunaʻoa from her mother.

A unique lei humupapa made with puakenikeni by Hauʻoli Akaka.

Fragrant pīkake are a favorite for lei kui. When making delicate puakenikeni lei, use a thicker and softer cord to avoid bruising the flowers!

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