Make Your Own Hawaiian Lei

By Hawaii.com Team
Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako.  Photo:  Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. Photo: Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Fashions come and go, but fresh floral lei are perennially stylish in Hawaii, where May Day is always lei day and lei are given for special celebrations or just to say “I love you.”

As with a greeting card, there is nothing nicer than a handmade lei, and perfection is beside the point.

There is more than one way to string a lei: Those of us who’ve poked our fingers one too many a time with needles while sewing a lei can learn to make braided haku lei or its simpler but no less fetching cousin, the wili lei.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako.  Photo:  Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. Photo: Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“The haku style is traditionally done with braiding stems of flowers and ferns with ti leaf, whereas the wili method, which looks the same as haku, is winding raffia around plant material,” said Marc Koga of the Department of Parks and Recreation. For wili lei, raffia or string can be used to wrap the stems to a backing strip.

Haku doesn’t necessarily mean head lei,” said Meleana Estes, who taught a workshop last month on making haku and wili lei at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. “My mom always wears her haku around her neck,” said Estes, who learned the art from her mother and her late grandmother, master lei maker Amelia Ana Kaopua Bailey, who founded the popular lei booth at the Punahou School Carnival.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako.  Photo:  Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. Photo: Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The first thing Estes did was to give each student a box to hold the materials they selected from vases filled with different fresh flowers, red and green ti leaves, and palapalai and leather ferns. Some of the flowers and all the ferns were gathered from Estes’ Manoa yard, and others were provided by Paiko, which sells Hawaii-grown flowers when available.

The flowers, in a profusion of colors, sizes and textures, included blue and pink hydrangeas, fuchsia bougainvillea, pink waxflowers and white statice from the Big Island and Maui, and yellow-orange ohai alii and rosy liko (young leaf of ohia lehua) from Estes’ yard. “Liko is just leaves but they look like blossoms,” Estes said.

“I had to rip out this bleeding heart because it was choking my liko tree,” she added, pointing at sprays of innocent-looking pink blossoms.

Each student also received long strings of raffia and a pair of scissors; the raffia was used as both the backbone and wrapping for their lei.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako.  Photo:  Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. Photo: Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

You can be creative. Some people like to follow a pattern, while others use one flower exclusively, making, say, an all-hydrangea lei. “There’s no right or wrong,” Estes said.

In the end, if it were going to be in a contest, a haku or wili lei should lie flat, and all the raffia should be covered. But this wasn’t a contest, and at the end of the two-hour class, all the students looked proud and happy as each tied on her lei, each one beautiful in its own way.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako.  Photo:  Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Lei making at Paiko botanical boutique in Kakaako. Photo: Bruce Asato/ Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

How to Make a Wili Lei

Wili lei are a nice project for beginners, said Kaiulani Kauahi, culture and arts coordinator at the Department of Parks and Recreation. Wili lei can look like haku lei, she said, so long as you make sure the plant materials are closely placed so the raffia strands don’t show.

Measure the length of your raffia strands. For a head lei you’ll need 18-22 inches of flowers and leaves, plus 5 inches of braid on either side for tying. So to be safe, your strands should measure about 36 inches.

Wet three to five strands of raffia with water from a spray bottle.

Make a knot at one end (or a loop if lei is going to be hung in a display) and then plait strands into a 5-inch braid, finishing it with a knot.

Smooth out one to three strands so that they lie flat on the table; they will be the backbone of the lei.

Separate out two strands to use for wrapping.

Cut flowers, ferns and leaves into sections, leaving 3-inch stems.

Lay two or three stems of greens and flowers on the backbone strands, making an “x,” then use the other strands to loop around once or twice, wrapping the stems to the backing tightly so they are secure. (You can also lay a fern in back to cover the raffia on the inside and make the lei feel softer against skin.)

Add the next spray of greens and flowers, closely overlapping the first spray so that the stems don’t show. Make sure the stems always lie on the center point against the backing and that the sprays overlap in the same direction.

Repeat until the lei is the right length.

Make a knot and braid the remaining strands, finishing with another knot.

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