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You're here: Home » Ancient Hawai`i » Hawaiian Culture » Clothing & Adornment » Lei & Lei Making

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Origins of Lei Making
Permanent Lei
Temporary Lei

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Types of Permanent Lei

While lei made of fresh flowers and greens were worn for everyday events and any type of celebration, Hawaiians excelled in making permanent lei from materials such as shells, feathers, nuts and bone, many of which were highly valued and passed from generation to generation. The stunning lei niho palaoa, an oblong or hook-shaped pendant of carved whale's tooth, was worn by ali`i as a symbol of their elevated status. Individual lei, imbued with mana and ancestral history, were passed from generation to generation. Developed from earlier Polynesian tooth or bone lei, the lei niho palaoa took on a more refined form in Hawai`i. The hook-shaped pendant was usually three to five inches long and hung around the wearer's neck from a thick coil of braided human hair.

Lei hulu manu, or feather lei, were also highly valued by ali`i. Requiring time and painstaking care to make, each lei included hundreds of bird feathers attached to a central cord in small bunches. In the heirarchy of color, deep yellow was the most valued with lighter yellow, red, green and black following in descending order. Professional birdcatchers gathered feathers in ancient times, for lei as well as other feathered garments. Using snares or sticky sap to catch their prey, they cleaned the bird's claws of sap and released them after carefully plucking a few feathers. Native honeycreepers provided most of the colored feathers: mamo, `o`o, `apapane, `i`iwi and `o`u. Today feathers from a wide variety of non-native birds are used (pheasants, peacocks, ducks, guinea fowls, quail, chickens, etc.) and can be altered with dyes. In ancient times, feather lei were worn around the head or neck; they also decorated standards displayed during the Makahiki season and flew from the masts of ocean-going canoes to indicate wind direction. Lei and feather hat bands worn today continue to be highly prized.

Lei pupu, or shell lei, are strung using the shells’ natural openings or by drilling holes. Small shells gathered from the leeward coasts of Ni`ihau and Kaua`i are most valued, today as they were in ancient times. Pupu Ni`ihau are white, green-brown or other pastel colors. More than 200 shells make up one 36-inch strand; several strands make a single lei. Like other permanent lei, lei pupu are prized ornaments that are often passed from generation to generation.

Lei hua, or seed lei, were made from all types of native seeds or nuts strung on cord. Today kukui lei remain very popular, the most visible of the seed lei. Made from kukui nuts that have been sanded, polished, punctured and with the nut meat removed, the lei can be blond, dark brown or black in color. The nut surface can be textured, sanded smooth or faceted.

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