Issue 8.1: February/March 2005

The Feather Ladies

by Liza Simon
photos by Rae Huo

Birds use their bright feathers to attract each other—and those same feathers attract humans, too, to Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau in Kapahulu, where the mother-and-daughter duo of Mary Lou Kekuewa and Paulette Kahalepuna practice the Hawaiian art of featherwork. The art originated to honor the alii, and inside the store you’ll see kahili, ceremonial standards of the type used by royal sentries, and a luxuriant shoulder cloak done in the style of those worn by royalty; It took Mary Lou thirteen years to make it. Heirloom pieces feature yellow feathers from the mamo and oo birds and red feathers from the apapane. The birds, once abundant in Hawaii are largely gone now: The mamo and oo are extinct; the apapane is rare and protected. Still, a rainbow spectrum of plumage beckons from the bins along the walls: In the wake of a dwindling local supply, many feathers are now ordered from an East Coast supplier, explains Aunty Mary Lou, as the store’s neatly coiffed seventy-nine-year-old founder is affectionately known.
But if the availability of featherwork’s raw materials in Hawaii has dwindled, the same cannot be said of the aloha, patience and diligence that are a requisite for succeeding at the art. Aunty Mary Lou and Paulette advise students that it takes twenty to eighty hours to produce a single lei. Of course, it’s time well-spent, says Aunty, noting that the first Europeans in the Islands were dazzled by Hawaiian featherwork. "Anyone can see that these are Hawaii’s crown jewels," she says.

Every class session begins with a prayer. "It’s something we do to get on the right path and forget the day’s pressures," explains Paulette, while she and her mom sit, laugh, talk story and seem almost unaware of all the hard work their nimble fingers are doing, quadruple binding individual feathers to fabric backing.

Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau
(808) 732-0865