|Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Monte Costa
Katie Lowrey perches on a ladder under a towering cluster of hala trees in the front yard of her home near Puako. She reaches into the cascading bough of pointy, green foliage with a picker and wheedles loose a leaf. On the ground, a few friends hack off the blunt heads and sharp tips of felled leaves with machetes.
Throughout the afternoon, members of ‘Aha Puhala O Puna, a group of Hilo crafters devoted to lauhala (hala leaf) weaving, arrive at the house for the club’s annual weekend retreat. Their goal—besides relaxing, eating and, of course, weaving—is to prepare lau (leaves) for the upcoming Moku o Keawe festival, a hula competition at the nearby Waikoloa Beach Marriott. There they will teach students how to make pale ipu, the square pads on which hula chanters pound their gourds. Katie, the club’s president, estimates they’ll need 1,500 three-quarter-inch strips of lauhala for the occasion.
As the women prepare the leaves, the guest of honor arrives: Auntie Elizabeth Malu‘ihi Lee, a spirited, 80-year-old papale (hat) maker from Kona. She’s one of the last living masters, carrying a wealth of knowledge that isn’t recorded in books. Accompanied by a few of the club members, she heads upstairs and settles into a chair on the breezy lanai. “Everything has a beginning,” she tells new weavers like me. “We start at the beginning. Touch the fiber. This is the first part of your life in weaving.” As the picking continues in the front yard, Auntie Elizabeth, too, starts at the beginning, recalling how her love affair with lauhala started.
“It was a slow day of coffee farming. Those days we did not have toys.” Life was simple but tough, Auntie says. Her chores included farming, harvesting, cleaning, cooking and gathering lau. “I told my dog, Happy—my playmate—‘Happy, let’s go pick lauhala!’ I was climbing the tree and talking to myself.” Sitting under that bough, Auntie recalls suddenly visualizing how the leaves could fit together to form a piko, the central weave of a hat. “It came to my mind: This is how mama did this! I ran home and told my mom. She was proud and she said, ‘You are ready.’”
That was when she was 6. By age 10, Elizabeth was weaving intricate hats that fetched twenty cents apiece. Her family bartered papale for vegetables, flour, poi, crackers, bread, sardines, corned beef.
“We no more money. For local people it was the happy trade,” Auntie says. Like generations of Hawaiians before her, she wove out of necessity. Back then, she says, people appreciated the craftsmanship, the time and labor that went into weaving. For example, she says, there was a household rule about their room-length indoor mat. “You go out of the house, you don’t go back with dirty feet on that mat,” she says, shaking her head. “You respect the work of the art.”
The kupuna’s (elder’s) words resonate with the junior weavers—most of them 50- and 60-somethings—and they nod. As the sun sets, they venture across the backyard to a quiet corner of Waialea Beach for a dip in the ocean before dinner, leaving the freshly picked lauhala stacked under a coconut palm to dry overnight.