“It’s the ultimate expression of aloha,” says Meleana Estes of the lei, the pan-Pacific symbol of affection seen at Island graduations, weddings and even board meetings. Estes has become an expert at creating haku lei (haku meaning to compose or weave), worn like a crown. In 2015, as a hobby complementing her career in the local fashion industry, Estes began teaching haku lei workshops throughout
Hawai‘i and the Mainland, sometimes for keiki, sometimes at brunch over mimosas.
Estes teaches a technique she learned from her tūtū (grandmother): the wili (to wind) style, in which a strand of raffia or twine is twisted around flowers and ferns. The classic haku lei, as seen in hula performance, is a delicate crown of native ‘ōhi‘a blossoms and palapalai fern. Estes, however, makes lei from anything available. “I pro-mote using whatever, especially considering the rarity and endangered status of some native species,” she says. On a recent trip to Palm Springs, she made voluminous crowns of rose and hydrangea. Purists might grumble, but throughout the Pacific, lei making continues to evolve, even as the practice has become less common. “A lot of local people know how to do it,” Estes says of haku lei making, “they just don’t take the time anymore.” Most of Estes’ haku lei are created from the garden her grandmother planted in Mānoa valley, where Estes now lives and carries on the family tradition.
A fine lei is all preparation. Estes assembles plant parts the way a sous-chef might mise en place all the ingredients prior to cooking. Its potency as a symbol of affection is partly the result of the maker’s attention, as a haku lei requires dexterity and a relaxed focus for at least an hour. Since making a business of it, Estes has pulled three-day shifts for wedding parties and lū‘au, her hands perpetually stained from palapalai. “Becoming a lei maker changes the way you see your surroundings,” Estes says. “I’m always noticing friends’ gardens or flowers on the side of the road for possible materials. It’s something you can do anywhere, if you have the right technique.” Estes recently created a haku lei kit, which includes raffia twine, a spray bottle and an instruction manual. “But of course the most important thing to have,” she says, “is patience.”