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
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
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.
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