Many different types of leis exist today. The wide variety of materials used and techniques that bring them together have made for a vast world of leis that still retain the warmth and meaning that have kept this beloved tradition alive through the centuries.
The leis traditionally made in Hawaii are made from local foliage with seeds and flowers adorning them. Bark and vines are often used to create the strands that hold these leis together. Some of the common flowers used in traditional leis include the sought-after orchid, the lucky ti leaf, the beautiful carnation and the striking plumeria. There are also many other flowers and materials used in leis and many different methods for creating the finished lei. Here are seven ways that leis are made:
- Kui: This style is one of the most common, and it is made through a piercing method. The lei maker takes a needle and pierces the materials being used. Each is strung together to create a lei that resembles a necklace. This is often used with plumerias, but other flowers may be used to create this effect.
- Hili: This braided lei form uses just one material throughout the lei. It was often made by braiding together at least three strands of ferns or vines.
- Hipu’u: This knotted form of lei is made in much the same way as a daisy chain. Each stem is knotted together and the next stem is then strung through the knot to make the chain.
- Haku: This mounted style of lei begins with a braid. The chosen material is then added into each braid wrap to mount it to the strands. Long leaves or tree bark were often used to create the braid.
- Humu: This method of basting attaches the decorative material to the lei with a sewing stitch. By basting the material to each row in an overlapping pattern, the effect is like scales.
- Wili: This twisting method requires short lengths of the material to be held in place with a coil wrapped around them. The wrap is often made of raffia.
- Hilo: With a rope made of two twisted strands, this twisting method of lei making often used ti leaves.
Many items from the Hawaiian islands were used to create their beautiful and meaningful leis. Flowers and leaves were common materials, but seeds, shells, feathers, bone, nuts and teeth were also used to adorn them. In ancient Hawaii, leis were worn for the Hawaiians to adorn themselves in natural beauty and to distinguish their own rank. The most significant type of lei was the maile lei. This was given between chiefs to foster peace with each other. In a Hawaiian temple, called a Heiau, the maile vine would be entwined to symbolize the coming together of both parties. When it was finished, both groups would be at peace. Learn more about different materials used in making Leis
A Lei for every Island
Both the surrounding Polynesian islands and the inhabitants of Asia influenced the creation of the distinctively Hawaiian lei. Wearing a lei for ancient Hawaiians represented their rank and their level of wealth. For royalty, it was an immediate sign of their status. The lei was also related to the geography of the islands, the religion of the people of Hawaii and the hula dance.
Hawaii has eight primary islands. Each of these islands has its own official lei that is an exercise in the harmony of color and texture. Many of these leis cannot be shipped outside of Hawaii because of the agricultural laws that forbid the shipment of certain species of plants to the mainland. The islands and their corresponding leis are:
Oahu is best known as the home of Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city. Oahu may have many urban areas, but it is also known for its astounding natural beauty. The yellow ilima, a native Hawaiian plant, is the flower of Oahu. It is a small flower with a soft yellow color, and it looks much like a small hibiscus. In ancient Hawaii, this flower was used for medicinal purposes. It was often eaten by pregnant women to keep them healthy. Today, it is a popular flower for leis because of its memorable color and diminutive size.
In Maui in the 1800s, the pink lokelani was brought to the island by visitors who prized its blossoms for their sweet scent and beautiful shape and color. This flower became the official flower of Maui in 1923 and has remained a prized flower that islanders love to look at, smell and wear. This flower is a cottage rose variety that has bright blossoms that stand out no matter where they’re placed.
The official flower of Kauai isn’t exactly a flower, but it is a lovely reminder of the island. The mokihana is a large green berry that has a bright and pleasing green hue as well as a spicy smell that is similar to anise. This native plant is found only on Mount Waialelae, and it makes a great material for a long-lasting, fragrant lei. It is often paired with maile leaves to create a festive green lei.
Called The Big Island by Hawaiians, the island of Hawaii is home to a wide variety of landscapes from desert to rainforest. Its official flower echoes the stunning natural beauty of this island of contrasts. The red Ohia Lehua grows on trees that can approach 100 feet in height, and the flower itself is an explosion of deep red color. Said to be sacred to the volcano goddess, Pele, this flower resembles a volcanic eruption with its many vertical streaks of bright red. The color and interesting shape of this flower make it perfect for leis.
This small island is known for its past as a pineapple plantation and its abundance of natural spaces. Its symbol is the kaunaoa. This plant grows right in the sand of Lanai’s beautiful beaches. It has been nicknamed the air plant because it gets its nutrients from the air rather than from soil. Colorful leis are often made from this plant’s yellow and orange strands.
Molokai has been nicknamed “the friendly island” by locals who love the hospitality of Molokai residents. The flower of this hospitable island is the white kukui blossom. This flower is a small, white bloom that has long been used in leis for its lovely white color. The kukui is also the state tree because of the importance of both the white flowers and the nuts that ancient Hawaiians once burned as candles.
The flower of this tiny island is actually a shell. The pupu shell is common on this rocky island’s pristine shores, and it has long been prized by Hawaiians. This island has few human residents and no roads, but it has multitudes of these small white shells. They are prized for their use in leis because of their soft white color.
Of the eight main islands of Hawaii, Kaho’olawe is the smallest. It’s uninhabited by humans, but it is inhabited by a beautiful white flower called the hinahina, also known as the native beach heliotrope. The fragrant smell and long-lasting blossoms of Kaho’olawe’s official flower have made it a favorite with lei makers. Both the flowers and its stems are used to make leis.
A Lei for every occasion
There are lei that are perfect for every occasion. No matter who the recipient and what kind of lei you are interested in, you can find out that is just right to honor the person you will give it to.