Lauhala: Learning the art of Patience

Established on the lush, and volcanic western slopes of the Big Island, Coffee Times owner, Les Drent, roasted, and sold his first pound of Kona coffee in 1993. Five years later, Les moved his Coffee Times roasting operation to the beautiful island of Kauai, and established the Blair Estate shade grown, organic coffee farm in 2001. While his passion for farming is now deeply rooted in the Kauai soil, he continues to be a strong proponent for the preservation of 100% Kona coffee.

Lauhala: Learning the art of Patience
By: Lois Ann Ell

December 9, 2011

lauhala bracelets

When I told my friend Aunty La I was embarking on learning the art of lauhala, she smiled and answered, “You’re learning the art of patience.” The leaves (lau translates to leaf in Hawaiian) of the Hala tree (Pandanus tectorious), also known as the Screw Pine, have been used in Hawai’i throughout history for a plethora of uses: roofing, flooring, sails for canoes, clothing, baskets, jewelry, headpieces and much more.

In the last few months, I have been lucky to be included in a series of lauhala workshops at Kanuikapono School in Anahola. The first workshop was making bracelets from prepared leaves. Although it was not easy—string of the leaf breaking, forgetting the pattern—I was lured in by the peacefulness of weaving (plaiting is actually the technical term) with a supportive group, I enjoyed the feel of the soft, natural fiber through my fingers, and the reward of finishing a bracelet. If a relationship with lauhala is a marriage, that was my first date, and it went well. I was smitten.

What I didn’t know about was the multiple stages and effort involved in preparing lauhala for plaiting. I was about to find out. There are books that will teach you about lauhala, but even the books will note it is important to learn this cultural tradition from a skilled kumu (teacher). Our group was blessed to have Kumu Maoli Ola Cook, Cherisse Kent from National Tropical Botanical Gardens, and the Kanuikapono teachers to lead us in the proper way.

Gathering

The first task is collecting the leaves. We went on a field trip to Sharon Pomeroy’s beautiful farm in Anahola, where a thick grove of Hala lives. We split up into groups of efficiency: some of us stripping the dried, brown leaves off the tree, some transporting the leaves to our base camp, and the rest trimming and bundling the gathered leaves. The grove of trees was dense. A thick blanket of dropped leaves covered the ground, and above were hundreds, which as Sharon warned, were possibly equipped with centipedes, mice, or other surprising friends. The darker leaves were ones we looked for as Kumu Maoli explained they are considered more valuable. I noticed this too, when plaiting my bracelet; the contrast of dark against lighter strands is beautiful. We trimmed off the po’o (head) and the huelo (tail) of each leaf, and bundled them up for the drying out phase.

Hala tree outside Kapa'a Library

Dehorning

The second step, a few weeks later, was cleaning and removing the (sharp!) thorns from the dried leaves and wiping off dirt and debris. We wrapped tape around our forefingers and thumbs, and learned quickly to strip down, away from the spikes.

Flattening

Straightening out and flattening the leaves is next, which Cherisse and the crew at National Tropical Botanical Gardens graciously took over responsibility for. She said that a pasta roller works well for this process, although the traditional way is by hand. The dried leaves curl up and it is not easy to flatten them without breaking. Spray bottles of water and damp cloths help in this step. The lau is then rolled into coils.

Stripping

We were fascinated as we watched Cherisse use what is called a box stripper to cut thin strips of a lauhala leaf in order to plait for our bracelets. Lining up razor blades in a row and then running the leaf through them, she created perfectly even, thin wisps of material. In the past, a variety of sharp objects were used, but the box stripper allows for precision.

Plaiting

We were now ready to make bracelets again! Combining a half of a leaf with the thin strips, we began to create again, as a group, quietly moving along. Sitting on the benches at Kanuikapono, occasional conversation drifted about, along with occasional mist from the spray bottles to keep the lauhala soft and pliable. The afternoon breeze kicked up red dust off the playground where the children played. I watched them, grateful that they too will learn this art, this tradition, this sustainable industry. Nothing is easy or fast with lauhala. But that’s the secret reward, I suspect. A well-woven piece, whether a bracelet or headband or fan, will last many years, and a reverence for the tradition will last a lifetime.

Sources
Bird, Arden J., Goldsberry, Steven, Bird, J. Puninani Kanekoa. The Craft of Hawaiian Lauhala Weaving. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1982.
Maunakea, Kupuna Katherine Kamalukukui. Lauhala Preparation and Simple Weaving, second edition. K. K. Maunakea, 1994.

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