Lei Class on the Big Island of Hawaii

Last updated on December 19th, 2020

We came to the Big Island with very little idea of how we were going to spend our time. Kenny’s suggestion is that – instead of running around trying to see lots of stuff in a short time – I relax and spend some time connecting with this place through a lei making lesson from his partner Kilohana. That sounds perfect.

Kilohana is a master lei maker, but I am lucky because he is also patient enough to teach his art to clueless folks like me!

First we harvest the ti leaves that will be used to hold the lei together.

The ti leaves are close at hand, as we harvest them from plants growing right in the yard!
Kilohana, shows me what to look for in a leaf and how to harvest them. Of course, he finishes harvesting his share (and a few more for me) while I still just have a couple. Finding the just the right leaves is harder than it seems it should be!

Once we have our leaves, we de-rib and split them and then lay them in the sun to warm.

Time to gather the rest of our materials!

Kilohana takes the truck up to the main road and then continues on for just a bit. He turns off on an undistinguished scruffy driveway of sorts. We bounce over rocks and ruts for a short distance (I can see why pick-ups are the vehicle of choice here) and then we stop.

We’ve reached our destination.

At first it looks like a chaotic, unwelcoming jumble, but it slowly forms into a rich – even generous – landscape. The state highway is just off to our side, barely hidden behind a row of scrubby trees, but we are in a world that few tourists driving past would ever guess exists.

Kilohana warns me to watch my step on the treacherous volcanic rock – most of the ground is comprised of sharp loose stones that alternate with flat areas that echo hollowly under my feet, threatening collapse at any moment.

It soon becomes apparent that it is definitely worth the risk to enter into this wild place as Kilohana shows me it is filled with wonderful plants, including:

the flowers, seed heads, and leaves of the Ohia;

pukiawe, with its colorful berries;

sword fern;

elusive uluhe;

and lovely golden moa.

Before he sets me loose to harvest materials for my lei, Kilohana greets the goddess Pele, greeting her and thanking her for the gifts this land offers.

Now, I can start collecting materials for my lei!

Were I a good student I would keep close to my teacher, but you all know me better than that. I see a manageable-looking path and start down it on my own, eager to be drawn farther into this starkly beautiful place.

I find most of the plants we are seeking, but I also find a few escaped orchids and other interesting things, including a patch of odd-looking ferns.

I pick a small leaf and hold it up to Kilohana, who is harvesting some distance from me.

“What is this?”

Of course he can’t see the little leaf I am holding up and my description of the plant isn’t particularly useful, so he starts working his way toward me. Meanwhile, I continue looking for other interesting plants growing in this (relatively) lush area near a small grove of koa trees.

When Kilohana reaches me I show him the funny-looking ferns.

Those, he tells me, are baby koa trees. Don’t pick them.



This is why I should have stayed with my teacher. . . but at least I only took one little leaf!

Back at the house Kilohana (rather unceremoniously, I think) dumps our collecting bags out on a large woven mat.

We are supposed to have collected enough material to make two leis, but – bad student that I am – I picked much of my material too long (6 inches rather than three), so there isn’t enough for two leis. Oops.

Despite the shortfall, it is a nice looking pile!

Before I can start making anything though, Kilohana shows me how to prepare the materials and helps me sort it all into neat piles.

Now I am ready to begin braiding.

First I am instructed to tie together three of the ti leaves. Then I begin braiding.

Every time I cross over the ti leaf I am to insert one or more of the flowers or leaves into it. As I work, Kilohana makes an anklet from the extra ti leaves while giving me tips and teasing me for picking through the pile of flowers and leaves in search of the absolutely perfect one for each spot.

The trick is to keep the braid tight while creating a pleasing mix of colors and textures. It’s work, but also relaxing – sort of Zen-ish.

Ok, so those aren’t the most flattering pictures, but look at the beautiful lei I made!

Kenny was right, this was the perfect way to spend the afternoon – thank you to you both!

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