How to Make a Lei : a primer and art of Lei Making (updated 2023)
Making a lei here in Hawaii or even where you live off island is a gratifying experience. When you make a lei and then gift it to someone special, the entire experience is special and a wonderful experience to do on your own or with a group of friends to celebrate a special occasion, event, milestone or even just an appreciation for someone. We share some of the history, cultural significance, materials to choose from and the different styles of lei making below in this simple guide with some video instructions.
This is an easy primer and guide that will help you to appreciate the process to learning how to make your own lei for love one’s or even for yourself.
A brief history of lei making
Lei making is a traditional art form and cultural practice deeply rooted in the history of the Hawaiian and Polynesian people. The lei, a garland or wreath typically made from flowers, leaves, shells, or other natural materials, holds significant cultural and spiritual importance. Here is a brief history of lei making:
Ancient Roots: The tradition of lei making dates back thousands of years to ancient Polynesia, where the practice was believed to have originated. Early Polynesian voyagers settled in the Hawaiian Islands around 300-600 AD and brought with them the art of lei making.
Hawaiian Culture: In Hawaii, leis became an integral part of the islanders’ lives, symbolizing love, respect, and hospitality. They were used for various occasions, including religious ceremonies, greetings, celebrations, and as offerings to gods and spirits.
Early Materials: Initially, leis were made using natural materials like leaves, ferns, vines, feathers, and shells. The materials used often held symbolic meanings, and specific leis were reserved for chiefs, warriors, and other distinguished individuals.
Influence of Western Contact: The arrival of European explorers and missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries introduced new materials to Hawaii, such as beads and ribbons, which were incorporated into lei making. This marked the beginning of a fusion between traditional and Western influences.
Lei Day: In 1928, a poet and writer named Don Blanding suggested the idea of a statewide Lei Day celebration in Hawaii. The idea was embraced, and on May 1, 1929, the first Lei Day was celebrated. Since then, it has become an annual event to honor the culture and beauty of leis.
Tourism and Commercialization: With the growth of tourism in Hawaii during the 20th century, the demand for leis increased significantly. As a result, lei making evolved from being a purely traditional practice to a commercially-driven industry, with leis becoming popular souvenirs for visitors.
Contemporary Lei Making: Today, lei making continues to thrive in Hawaii and other Pacific islands, serving as a symbol of the islands’ cultural identity. Many local artisans and cultural practitioners continue to create leis using traditional techniques, preserving the art form for future generations.
Overall, lei making has played a crucial role in the cultural heritage of Hawaii and the Pacific, representing the spirit of aloha and the deep connection between people and nature. It remains an essential tradition, cherished by locals and admired by visitors from all around the world.
Typical materials used for lei making
Leis are made from a wide variety of materials, and the choice of materials often depends on the cultural traditions, availability of resources, and personal preferences of the lei maker. Here are some typical materials used in lei making:
Flowers: Flowers are the most common and beloved material used in leis. Tropical flowers like plumeria (frangipani), orchids, pikake, hibiscus, tuberose, and ginger are popular choices for their vibrant colors and fragrances. Different flowers can convey various meanings and emotions.
Leaves: Various types of leaves are used to create leis, adding a touch of greenery and texture. Ti leaves, kukui leaves, ferns, and maile leaves are commonly used for their durability and beauty. Ti leaf leis, in particular, are used in traditional ceremonies and hold significant cultural value.
Shells: In coastal regions, seashells are often incorporated into leis, adding a unique and ocean-inspired element. Cowrie shells and other shells with intricate patterns are favored for their aesthetic appeal.
Seeds and Nuts: Seeds and nuts from native plants are also used to make leis. Some examples include kukui nuts (candlenuts), kukui lei being the official lei of Hawaii, and various types of seeds like pua kenikeni seeds and milo seeds.
Feathers: In ancient times, leis made from feathers were highly prized and often reserved for royalty and chiefs. Today, feather leis are less common but still used for special occasions and traditional ceremonies.
Ribbon and Yarn: As lei making evolved, ribbons and yarn were introduced, providing a broader range of colors and textures. They are often used in combination with other natural materials to create unique and visually appealing leis.
Paper and Fabric: In modern times, lei makers have experimented with using paper and fabric to create leis that can last longer and be more easily shipped as souvenirs.
Candy and other Edibles: In some instances, especially during festive occasions, leis made from candy or other edibles can be seen. These leis add a delightful twist to the tradition.
It’s important to note that the availability of materials may vary based on the region and the season. Lei makers often take great care in selecting materials that represent the spirit of the occasion and the recipient’s preferences, making each lei a truly unique and thoughtful gift.
Styles of lei made
Creating a flower lei involves several different styles and techniques. Each style results in a unique and beautiful lei. Here is an outline of the various ways or styles of making a flower lei:
- Select flowers with sturdy stems and remove excess foliage.
- Thread the flowers onto a lei needle or string, one after the other, creating a continuous strand.
- Knot the ends of the strand together to form a circle, completing the lei.
Here’s a simple flower lei demonstration
- Choose two sets of flowers and string them separately on two lei needles or strings.
- Lay one strand on top of the other and intertwine or twist them together.
- Knot the ends to complete the double-strand lei.
Haku Lei (Head Lei):
- Haku leis are worn as headbands or crowns.
- Prepare a base using braided ti leaves or other foliage, creating a circular or semi-circular shape that fits the head.
- Attach flowers, one by one, to the base, securing them with small pieces of floral wire or by weaving the stems.
Check out this Haku Lei demonstration below
Kui Lei (Sewn Lei):
- Kui leis are made using a needle and thread.
- Thread the needle with a strong, durable thread, like dental floss or fishing line.
- Pierce the center of each flower through its base or calyx and pull it down the thread, creating a string of flowers.
Wili Lei (Twist Lei):
- Wili leis involve twisting or winding flowers and leaves together to form a lei.
- Take a long, flexible vine or strand of foliage and wrap it around a central flower or seed to anchor it.
- Continue adding flowers and foliage, twisting and weaving them together to build the lei.
This is the HIlo Style demonstration below
Kipu Lei (Knotted Lei):
- Kipu leis use knotted strands of material.
- Cut long, thin strips of leaves or fabric and knot them together to create a sturdy base.
- Attach flowers by knotting them onto the base or weaving the stems through the knots.
- Plumeria flowers have soft, flexible stems, making them suitable for lei making without using needles.
- Gather a cluster of plumeria flowers and insert one stem into the base of another, overlapping them slightly.
- Continue adding flowers until the desired length is achieved.
Check out this easy video demonstration.
Mixed Material Lei:
- Combine various materials like flowers, leaves, shells, ribbons, and beads to create intricate and artistic leis.
- Experiment with different patterns and arrangements to make a one-of-a-kind lei.
Here’s a fun mixed flower lei demonstration below
Haku Style Ti Leaf
This style is made primarily with just ti leaf into a head haku style lei.
The lei is made with three long strands and cut lei pieces that are woven into the lei to a desired effect and length.
Remember that each style requires skill, patience, and attention to detail. Lei making is an art form that has been passed down through generations, and the choice of style often reflects cultural traditions and personal creativity.
Tips on making a beautiful lei
Creating a beautiful lei is a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced lei maker, here are some tips to help you craft a stunning and meaningful lei:
Choose Fresh and Vibrant Materials: Select fresh and vibrant flowers, leaves, or other materials for your lei. The colors should be bright and appealing, and the flowers should be at their peak freshness to ensure a visually stunning lei.
Consider the Occasion and Recipient: Tailor the lei to the occasion and the recipient’s preferences. Different flowers and colors may hold specific meanings, so choose accordingly to convey the appropriate message.
Preparation is Key: Prepare all your materials in advance. Trim stems, remove excess foliage, and have everything organized before you start making the lei. This will streamline the process and result in a more polished look.
Pay Attention to Size and Length: Consider the size and length of the lei you want to create. Longer leis may require more materials, while shorter ones can be more delicate and elegant. Ensure the lei fits comfortably around the neck or wrist.
Use Quality String or Thread: Opt for sturdy and durable string or thread to prevent the lei from breaking easily. Dental floss or fishing line are commonly used for their strength and flexibility.
Practice Consistent Spacing: Whether you’re using a needle and thread or weaving the materials together, practice consistent spacing between the flowers or elements. This will give your lei a balanced and cohesive appearance.
Experiment with Designs: Don’t be afraid to experiment with different designs and techniques. Mixing materials, adding twists, or incorporating unique elements can make your lei stand out and showcase your creativity.
Secure Flowers Firmly: Ensure each flower or element is securely attached to the lei. Double-knot strands, use floral wire if needed, or weave the stems tightly to prevent them from slipping or falling off.
Be Gentle: Handle the materials with care to avoid bruising or damaging delicate flowers or leaves. Gentle handling will maintain the lei’s beauty and freshness.
Embrace Imperfections: Remember that lei making is an art, and each lei is unique. Embrace imperfections and see them as part of the lei’s character and charm.
Share the Aloha: Making a lei is a labor of love and an expression of aloha. Enjoy the process and put positive energy into your creation, as the love and care you put into the lei will be felt by the recipient.
By following these tips, you can create a beautiful and meaningful lei that will be appreciated and cherished by its recipient, symbolizing the warmth and spirit of aloha.
Check out these other Hawaii and cultural topics
Conclusion to making a lei
Making a lei is a cherished tradition in Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures, embodying the spirit of aloha – love, respect, and giving. Lei making involves crafting garlands or wreaths using flowers, leaves, shells, or a mix of materials. It is an art form passed down through generations, symbolizing unity, blessings, and a connection to the land and ancestors.
Leis are given to mark special occasions like graduations, weddings, and birthdays, as well as to welcome visitors. Each style of lei, whether single-strand, double-strand, or mixed material, holds cultural significance and requires creativity and skill. The act of presenting a lei fosters a sense of community and unity among people.
In a world of modernity, making a lei reminds us to cherish tradition, connect with nature, and express love and appreciation. This age-old practice preserves the cultural heritage of Hawaii, making it a meaningful and beautiful gesture that transcends time and place. Whether locals or visitors, participating in lei making allows us to embrace the essence of Hawaii and its people, strengthening the bonds of friendship and celebration.
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