A Meaningful Legacy
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Tsuruyo Kimura (front)
and Alfreida Fujita (back) of Kimura's Lauhala Shop
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
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
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
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
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.
Makaloa Grass growing
in a swampy area on the Big Island.
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.
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