By Sharon Higa and Estee Manfredi | Oct. 24, 2022
To truly appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of lauhala creations, the Puuhonua Society has created a space at Ward Village where one can learn by doing the practice of ulana lauhala (weaving) and other Hawaiian artisan crafts.
Hawaiian Electric’s recent donation to ensure the nonprofit’s work supporting cultural practitioners continues to thrive had us curious about the lauhala craft. We decided to check it out with grand visions of weaving a large floor mat, or given our inexperience, at least a drink coaster.
“Please, sit here, take this cloth and wipe down the leaf like so,” said Aunty Lorna, demonstrating the technique to remove dirt from a two-foot long strand of dried lauhala. The damp rag was pulled steadily up the lauhala, separating the curled midrib as it cleaned. “When you hear this (squeak) sound, you’re doing it right.”
Around the room were piles of bundled lauhala tucked in almost every corner. Behind our chairs, a lauhala pile the size of three weeks of laundry awaited cleaning. Wait a minute, what have we gotten ourselves into?
Across from us, long-time volunteers Bethany and Sadie were delicately removing the rib of the lauhala using a bamboo knife implement. Next to us, Lehua and Lani were also diligently cleaning the lauhala, dipping their rags into a bucket of water to rinse, squeeze excess water and repeat. They were quiet, contemplative, finding their rhythm.
When our pile of leaves sufficiently dwindled, Aunty Lorna handed us each a bamboo tool. “Take the thick part of the lauhala and make two notches on either side of the rib. Can you feel it?” We nodded. “Now, you just move the tool in the direction of the leaf until you strip away the rib from the leaf. Then, repeat on the other side. Then, you can clean these leaves as well.”
As we wrestled with the new giant pile of ribbed leaves, hands curled tightly onto the tool while occasionally bopping each other on the head with a frond, we eventually found the process was quite soothing in its repetition. And we watched, listened and learned a lot during the three-hour workshop.
Behind us Aunty Lorna ran the cleaned lauhala through two metal rollers, a piece of equipment that resembled a cross between a sewing machine and a pasta maker. The results: flat and soft leaves that could easily be wound into a roll. Across the room Angel was doing the same on another roller, while Kapiolani wound batches of 20 flattened leaves into rolls.
“That’s called a kukaa. We need about 140 rolls to create a lauhala mat,” Aunty Lorna told us. So, we’re not going to weave a mat today? Hearty laughter erupted from the regulars while we newbies sighed in disappointment.
“The process starts with picking the lauhala during the dry season and we only take the ones that have lived their full life so there are no bugs. Some of these leaves come from a tree that is over 20 years old. We are always looking for trees and will even prune them for free. Sometimes we even make things for the tree owner in return for allowing us to pick the leaves,” Aunty Lorna smiled. “The next step is the hala prep, which you are doing now. Later, much later, the weaving can begin.”
Aunty Lorna explained good weavers pick the lauhala, prepare them and use all the leaves, long or short, in their creations. Long ones for big projects like floor mats and short ones for smaller projects. Only the lauhala with bug-eaten holes are tossed.
Lauhala preparation is not so simple. We learned you should have strong, tough hands or wear gloves if the leaves have thorns. A good eye to see flaws and patience is a must. It’s also essential to have a kumu or teacher to provide guidance, good friends to share the experience and an openness to make new connections.
At the end of the night, we realized all the careful preparation will eventually become a precious artisinal piece, such as a lauhala hat, that can be enjoyed for decades. The more it’s used or worn, the softer it will become, and many lauhala creations have been passed down for generations to cherish.
As we completed our part of the process, the seemingly mundane task was elevated to equal importance as the finished product. The closing oli mahalo, a chant of gratitude to honor the gathering, was a humbling end that further weaved a sense of community into the lives of all who participated in this enriching cultural tradition. To learn more, visit puuhonua-society.org.
Sharon Higa is a senior communications consultant and Estee Manfredi is a corporate librarian at Hawaiian Electric Company.