The Allure of Ulana

The Islands’ finest fiber artists gather to perpetuate Hawaiian weaving traditions
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Bailey Rebecca Roberts.

Pōhaku Kaho‘ohanohano unrolls a section of sail woven out of golden brown lauhala (pandanus leaves). A blend of beauty and functionality, it’s a replica of what his Polynesian ancestors used to cross the Pacific many hundreds of years ago.

“Sometimes when I’m weaving certain things I’ve never woven before, like this canoe sail, something happens that I cannot explain,” he says. He runs his hand along the piece, which is stitched at the edge with coconut cordage. “Nobody showed me how to do this. It’s like the Hawaiian proverb: ‘In doing, the knowledge comes.’ You figure out something ancient, something that has been lost reveals itself.”

Kaho‘ohanohano is a master weaver, kumu (teacher) and cofounder of the Kauluhiwaolele Maui Fiber Arts Conference. Hosted by the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, the four-day event celebrates ulana, the Hawaiian art of weaving or plaiting. A student sidles up to Kaho‘ohanohano with a hat she’s working on. She wants to accent the tan lauhala weave with black banana fiber and asks where she can find this rare material. He reaches into a bag and hands her a shiny ebony coil. Her eyes widen. “It’s so precious!” She accepts the gift and dashes back to her work space in the hotel ballroom. 

Pōhaku Kaho‘ohanohano made his first lauhala (pandanus leaf) hat in 1995. His teacher told him to wear it until it fell apart, then burn it. That took twenty years; in the interim Kaho‘ohanohano had become one of Hawai‘i’s most adroit weavers.

Inside the cavernous room, where twenty-one kumu hold court, it looks like a paper shredder exploded: slender strips of lauhala litter the banquet tables. Half a dozen students orbit around each ulana master, hoping to soak up precious ‘ike (knowledge). Traditional Hawaiian plaiting techniques can’t be gleaned from any book; these skills are passed down person to person, as they have been for generations. Over the next four days, beginning weavers will learn how to prep their materials and fabricate a simple fan or bracelet. Advanced students will tackle more sophisticated projects: museum-quality baskets and hats. 

In days past, every Hawaiian family had at least one nimble-fingered person who could make useful, attractive objects. Apprentice weavers, typically young girls, learned from elder relatives how to make mats, baskets, bedding, fans and thatch. Multipurpose lauhala mats were essential to daily life: used to carry harvests of vegetables and sea salt, cover the imu (underground oven) and catch the wind as canoe sails. “You couldn’t move into a home without a floor mat,” says Kaho‘ohanohano.

Lauhala is a Hawaiian weaver’s staple material. Spiky, mop-headed hala trees grow throughout Polynesia; old chants and mele (songs) celebrate the finest groves. Novice weavers soon discover that working with lauhala is a painstaking act of devotion. First you must gather the dried leaves, strip them of midribs and thorns, soak them in salt water and coil them into bundles. When you have a few uninterrupted hours to work, you slice the long, pliant leaves into uniform lengths. Then you can begin plaiting them—a task that requires patience, creativity and mathematical acuity.“If you make a mistake, you’re going to hear the word ‘hemo [undo],’” Kaho‘ohanohano warns.

The art of ulana has evolved over time. When Western ships began frequenting the Islands in the late 1700s, indigenous artisans took note of what the foreigners wore and replicated European fashions using local materials. These stylish innovations resulted in the pinnacle of Hawaiian weaving: the pāpale, or hat. 

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, entrepreneurs produced handcrafted pāpale of all types, from cowboy hats to fancy chapeaus that could rival those worn in Paris. An editorial published by the Maui News in 1919 claimed that the lauhala hat was “the sartorial adornment of Honolulu’s men about town”—until the Panama took its place. In praise of the Island-made pāpale, the writer exclaimed, “Let’s bring it back! And who needs a pugaree [scarf] when you can pair your hat with a nice lei.”

One hundred years later that sentiment echoes not only here in the ballroom, but in boutiques across Hawai‘i and online. Coveted lauhala hats fetch hundreds of dollars apiece. Well-made pāpale can last a lifetime or longer. They are often handed down as heirlooms. 

Kaho‘ohanohano owns many pāpale, both vintage hats and those he’s made. He shows off a favorite, a reddish-tan top hat from the 1930s. A label sewn into its brim reads: Morioka $1.25. The immaculate weave is as thin as a dime, made of interlaced lauhala strands just one-sixteenth of an inch wide. The skinnier the strands, the longer a hat takes to weave. But it’s the color that truly stands out with this one: rich gradients of red, mahogany and amber. Hala trees occasionally produce reddish-brown leaves, Kaho‘ohanohano says. During Hawai‘i’s plantation era, hats made from these rarities were reserved for the elite, the descendants of Hawaiian royalty or luna (supervisors). “Even the weavers wouldn’t wear them. They didn’t want to look high maka-maka,” he says, using the Hawaiian pidgin phrase for haughty.

Hawai‘i’s weavers are a humble, tight-knit bunch. The crowded ballroom buzzes as friends greet one another and talk shop: where to find the longest lauhala, which skills they hope to hone this weekend. “Tomorrow it will be quiet in here,” Kaho‘ohanohano says. “Heads down, working.” Gayle Miyaguchi nods. She’s the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel’s cultural resource specialist and conference cofounder. The two organizers have reason to be proud: Registration for their inaugural event surpassed expectations. “The art of weaving is alive,” Kaho‘ohanohano smiles. 

Ulana, or weaving, is a social art; students work beside their teachers to make attractive hats, bracelets, baskets and mats like those seen above at the first Kauluhiwaolele Maui Fiber Arts Conference held last September.

That wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago. Elizabeth Maluihi Lee, who’d grown up weaving alongside her parents, recognized that the art of her ancestors was on the verge of vanishing. Most people didn’t have days and weeks to devote to making a single hat or floor mat, and the kūpuna (elders) who still knew how were passing away. So in 1995 Lee invited every ulana master she knew to Kona for a conference. The gathering jump-started a renaissance; a second Hawaiian weaving conference took place in Hilo, and ulana clubs formed on other islands. Lee urged Miyaguchi, who attended that first conference, to start one of her own on Maui. It took a while, but when Miyaguchi landed the job at the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel two years ago, she knew the time had come. She reached out to Kaho‘ohanohano.

“Nowadays if you do lauhala, you’ve probably learned from me,” says Kaho‘ohanohano. He’s been teaching the craft for over two decades, has curated multiple ulana art exhibits and appeared in documentaries on the subject. Compared with practitioners of previous generations, he got a late start. He was 19 when he discovered that several of his ancestors were renowned weavers: a great-grandmother and two great-great-grandmothers. Almost fifty years had elapsed since they passed away, taking their ‘ike with them, but Kaho‘ohanohano felt called to revive their legacy. He looked for a kumu willing to mentor him. He found June Ka‘aihue, a weaver from the small village of Honokohau, next door to the valley where his great-great-grandmothers had lived. During Kaho‘ohanohano’s first lesson, Ka‘aihue scolded him for bringing substandard leaves. He took it in stride. “I didn’t know what I was doing at first,” he says, “but it felt like picking up an old thread.” Over the years he studied under seven teachers, all women, each with her own style.

The most adept weavers develop signature patterns, which they share with their students. Pāpale collectors can often identify whose hands crafted a hat just by looking at it. The piko, the center point from which the weave radiates, is distinctive. Piko designs vary from island to island and teacher to teacher. Some weavers are known for using banana fiber, sugar cane tassels and fern stems to make their patterns pop. Kaho‘ohanohano’s style is eclectic, drawing from his diverse kumu. 

“I love experimenting with colors and textures,” he says, pulling out a bag of braided lauhala. While many hats are woven from the crown down to the brim, others are made of stitched-together braids. Each braid pattern has a name. Kaho‘ohanohano holds up an example of an ‘upena style braid, which resembles a fishing net. The one called kauila zigzags like lightning, while ‘ie lū is scalloped at the edge, delicate as lace.

As it turns out, plenty of people are still willing to dedicate their weekends—and lifetimes—to preserving the practice of ulana. Some, like Kaho‘ohanohano, view it as a way to reconnect with ancestors; others find it meditative. It’s inherently social because students must learn directly from their kumu. Gossip or “talking stink” is forbidden, as weavers believe that their mana, or spiritual energy, flows into their creation. “You don’t swear while weaving or work while you’re upset,” says Kaho‘ohanohano. “You put your aloha into it.” 

Cherie Okada-Carlson works at a table beside her teacher, Margaret Lovett from Kaua‘i. Carlson had no interest in weaving until she spotted a gorgeous pāpale at Ala Moana Center. It was a classic cup-and-saucer-style hat with a “cup” that fits snugly on the head and an elegant, curved “saucer,” or brim. Carlson desperately wanted to wear it in an upcoming parade, but it cost $600. She asked an auntie to help her make one like it. Instead, the auntie introduced her to Lovett, the hat’s creator. Carlson not only made her first hat in time for the parade, she went on to get a degree in Hawaiian weaving. 

“You see more weavers now than before, and younger people,” says Miyaguchi. Plus, Kaho‘ohanohano adds, the art is evolving. Much like their predecessors, today’s ulana practitioners use traditional methods to create contemporary fashions: flashy purses, visors and flask covers. “Wāhine [women] like their bling-bling,” grins Kaho‘ohanohano. The best weavers elevate functional items to fine art. Kaho‘ohanohano’s canoe sail was part of a major piece commissioned by the Westin Kā‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas. The finished work hangs in the resort lobby. Ten feet tall and five feet wide, it commanded the highest price ever recorded for a lauhala piece. 

Weavers must first prepare their materials: harvest leaves, strip them of spines, soak them in salt water and coil them into bundles — a centuries-old process that many artists feel connects them to their ancestors.

“It’s a weaving world right now,” says Herb Kaneko. “I love it!” The gregarious woodworker sits outside the ballroom at a table loaded with custom-made weaving tools. His parents were Kona coffee farmers who supplemented their income during World War II by selling hats to soldiers. Most of his siblings became weavers, while he carved out a related niche as a toolmaker. “You cannot perpetuate the craft without the tools,” he says. “That’s my primary mission.”

Early ulana implements were simple: smooth stones to flatten leaves, shark teeth or shards of volcanic glass to cut strips and small sticks to push folds into place. In addition to these, weavers now also rely on koe, wooden blocks with rows of evenly spaced adjustable blades. With a koe a weaver can split a leaf into several strips of the desired width with one quick swipe. Kaneko specializes in koe and ipu, the wooden molds used to shape hats. Serious hatmakers need ipu of varied shapes and sizes—a demand that keeps Kaneko busy. “I’m not in it to make money,” he says.“I just give the ipu away, then the weavers give me hats. But I can only wear one at a time!”

Master weavers gathered in Kā‘anapali to share their ‘ike (knowledge) at the Kauluhiwaolele Maui Fiber Arts Conference. Kekai Kapu from Maui specializes in basketry and Pualani Muraki from Kona has been weaving since before she could walk.

By day three of the conference, a library-like silence has fallen over the ballroom. In one corner a lomilomi (massage) practitioner kneads tension out of weavers’ sore shoulders and forearms. Die-hards will later strap on headlamps to work into the night. It’s not a competition or race to finish, but no one wants to waste the chance to get critical feedback from some of the finest living weavers.

During an afternoon panel session, several kumu describe their journeys with ulana and pay homage to their teachers. Kaho‘ohanohano recalls Maria Kahalekulu, who was raised in the traditional Hawaiian way and had to weave a mat before getting married at age 17. Her parents are buried just north of the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, at Pu‘u Keka‘a. “She taught me the braided hats and how to use sugar cane,” he says. “She might have been one of the only ones who still knew how to do it.”

She also connected him to his own weaving lineage. One day Kaho‘ohanohano mentioned a dream that he’d had about making a hat out of bamboo. Kahalekulu asked if he used an ipu in the dream. Usually bamboo hats are braided, not woven on a mold. Kaho‘ohanohano said he used an ipu. His kumu nodded, “That was how Susan Kumai‘ea Hano, your great-grandmother, wove her bamboo hats.” 

Margaret Lovett from Kaua‘i is known for her cup-and-saucer hats, such as the one she's wearing. Lauhala hats are highly-valued, fetch hundreds of dollars apiece and can last a lifetime or longer.

The final night of the conference has all the trappings of a graduation party. Attendees stream into the ballroom wearing their most prized pāpale: cup-and-saucer hats cocked saucily to one side, fascinators fringed with fine netting and wide-brimmed bonnets ringed with bright yellow feather lei. A Hawaiian band plays in the corner while jubilant weavers load up plates from the buffet. One by one, each kumu steps onto the stage with his or her cohort of students to show off what they’ve made. The caliber of weaving is truly remarkable—hats like these simply don’t exist outside of museums or private collections.

The following morning, the kumu and their students participate in a final ceremony: giving back to the tree that sustains them. The entire group gathers outside to express gratitude and plant a hala sapling. Holding his infant son, Kaho‘ohanohano looks up at the weathered hala that stands beside the new planting. “Lauhala sails brought us here,” he says. “How else would we have discovered the Islands? It was the lauhala that made us Hawaiians.” HH