Lauhala: Weaving Yesterday into Today

Lau means leaf in Hawaiian,” explains Cindy Whitehawk, a lauhala teacher from Kona. “The hala tree has a pineapple-like fruit, and it breaks into keys’. These keys, when dried, are like a brush, and were used to paint kapa cloth in ancient Hawaii.”

Cindy Whitehawk will make anything into lauhala, including her shoes!

I am at the Grand Hyatt in Poipu, celebrating “The Collective Spirit of the Hawaiian Culture.” It is a day-long event put on by the Kauai Chapter of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. Nine artists have been flown in from across the state to teach us how to make traditional handcrafts used by native islanders.

Lauhala is a term that describes the technique of weaving the semi-dried leaf of the hala tree. Cindy says it’s more accurately called plaiting, but everyone says weaving. She runs a small pointed blade down the long slender leaf, removing tiny thorns that snag.

Dipping the leaf in water, she presses and pulls the length of it between her fingers to soften it. “Hawaiians used lauhala to make sails for canoes, mats and pillows,” she says, and measures the width of my balled up fist. Her nimble hands begin to form a bracelet that will fit me perfectly.(Left) The first stage of my bracelet is done. Next comes the embellishment. (Right) My husband using a knitting needle to add embellishments.

“The leaf that runs the circumference of the bracelet is called ku,” Cindy explains. “Moe are the pieces that wrap around.” I listen intently, but I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to replicate the complicated design.

Three strips of leaf have been wrapped to create the backbone of my bracelet and are held together by a clothes pin. Cindy shows me the plaiting process, and hands me the bracelet with three long strips of light, dark and light leaf springing from its base.

At first, I fumble with the length of the leaves, and soon a simple pattern begins to emerge. Over, under, wrap, alternate. As I plait another row, I’m reminded of the lattice design on a pie. All my worries disappear while my mind softly focuses on the repetitive movements and an elegant design is slowly revealed. The completed lauhala bracelets, which took between 2-3 hours to make.

My husband is sitting beside me, making his own bracelet. The activity brings out our inner child who delights in making things with our hands, and connects us to the spirit of Hawaii that echoes thorough the ages.

It is believed that the hala tree arrived to Hawaii on its own, as seedlings that floated here. On Kauai, seed and pollen samples taken from Makauwahi Cave predate human settlement. Male flowers are small, fragrant and last for only one day. Female flowers resemble pineapples, as mentioned earlier, and are used when painting kapa cloth.

If you happen to be in Kona and would like to make your own lauhala bracelet, check out the kumu (teacher) at Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort. Cindy is there every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m., offering free lauhala bracelet making classes.

Photo Credit: Daniel Lane

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