Traditional Hawaiian crafts are rooted in Polynesian and Tahitian culture, although they have evolved over many centuries to make use of the natural materials found on the islands. Many of today’s artisans keep their rich heritage alive through these crafts, such as lei-making, weaving, the carving and decorating of gourds, and woodworking.
Colonial exploration brought people from all over the world to the islands, and with them came new forms, techniques, and materials. For instance, quilting has become a favorite pastime. Other crafts you’ll find include glasswork, pottery, jewelry, and sculpting.
Perhaps the most important of ancient Hawaiian crafts, featherwork held social and spiritual significance as well as aesthetic appeal. Rare feathers were used to create capes, helmets, leis, and hair ornaments. Making these adornments took a great deal of time and effort, as the feathers needed to be collected, cut, trimmed, and then fashioned into a finished piece. Over the years, generations of gifted featherworkers raised the craft to a high art form.
The purpose of featherworks was to honor the ali’i (royalty); only the ali’i and nobility were allowed to wear them. Aside from denoting the wearer’s high social status, pieces were also coveted for spiritual reasons. Common wisdom held that the maker passed their mana (spiritual power) into the pieces they made, which eventually would be absorbed by the wearer. In the 19th century the practice of featherwork began to decline as the influence of Western ideas and Christianity obscured the art form’s sacred foundations. Today few people carry on the tradition, though feather leis can occasionally be found. Feather leis can be worn around the neck or wrapped around a hat as a hat band.
Ancient Hawaiians wore leis on their wrists and ankles in addition to their necks. Although wrist and ankle leis are rarely worn today, leis still symbolize affection and esteem. In addition to feather leis, other leis have been made over the centuries. A more simple type was the ancient lei palaoa, a whale’s tooth pendant hung from a cord of braided hair. Now archaic, they can still be found in museum exhibits. Nuts and seeds have been crafted into leis, too.
Of course, the flower lei has become synonymous with Hawaiian hospitality. Different types of flowers used to make leis include plumeria (most familiar to travelers), lehua (red, feathery blossoms), ilima (a small, orange or yellow hibiscus), lokelani (a pink rose), and kukui (the candlenut tree’s tiny white flowers). Other plants are used, too, like the mokihana (a scented vine with berries) and kaunaoa (a kind of yellow moss).
People on the island of Ni’ihau prefer to make their leis from shells. Found only on Ni’ihau, the shells used are so rare that they’re the only shells to be classified as gems. The shells come in several colors, such as white, yellow, orange, and a hard-to-find blue. Making shell leis is a family affair, with everyone working together to collect the shells, then sort them by color and size. Like feather leis, shell leis are intricately crafted.
Before contact with the Western world, Hawaiians made cloth called kapa from the mulberry tree’s inner bark. They dyed the material in a variety of colors and patterns. Any fabric need was fulfilled by kapa, including bedspreads.
When missionaries came to Hawaii, they introduced their own fabrics and sewing techniques. Hawaiians quickly incorporated them, though they altered quilt making methods to suit their needs. Instead of stitching together numerous small patches of fabric, Hawaiians started with one large piece of material, then sewed appliqués on top. Nature and personal themes served as inspiration for most of their patterns.
Modern quilt makers continue the tradition. The bold colors (generally limited to two or three per quilt) and interesting symmetrical patterns lend a graphic feel to Hawaiian quilts which is quite different from quilts found elsewhere. With their artistic sensibility, they’re no longer simply functional pieces, they’re often hung on walls to showcase their beauty.
You’ll find crafts at many places throughout the Hawaiian islands, including boutiques, galleries, museum gift shops, and cultural festivals. Whether you bring home a woven basket, wooden mask, ceramic vase, or other item, crafts are a wonderful way to remember your trip long after you say “Aloha” to this lush paradise.