Memories of ‘a Renaissance Lei Maker’

In the 1990s when Meleana Estes was a teenager attending Punahou School in Honolulu (President Barack Obama’s alma mater), she had a steady job picking the fragrant yellow flowers from the pua kenikeni trees that bloomed in her grandmother’s backyard.

“I think she paid me $10 per day,” Ms. Estes recalled during a recent phone interview. Her maternal grandmother, Amelia Ana Ka‘opua Bailey, was a seamstress and costume designer by trade, but stringing flowers, vines and other plants into leis, the garlands synonymous with Hawaii, was her passion.

“Because she learned her signature wili (wrapped) style later in life, she would begin every lei workshop she taught by saying she was ‘a renaissance lei maker,’” Ms. Estes wrote in the introduction to her new book, “Lei Aloha: Celebrating the Vibrant Flowers and Lei of Hawai‘i.” The volume was intended as an ode to the art and soul of lei culture, and as a love letter to Ms. Bailey, who died in 2012 at the age of 89.

“She meant that she got into lei making as it was re-emerging, along with many other Hawaiian arts, during the 1960s,” the introduction continued. “She did not learn from her kupuna (grandparents). She was proud that her mo‘opuna (grandchildren) could say that we did.”

Lei making was such a staple of Ms. Estes’s upbringing on the islands of Kauai and Oahu (“Even the wooden ducks my family would bring out at Christmas were adorned with their own neck lei,” she wrote) that in 2015 she put her skills to use leading lei workshops on Oahu.

“I thought it would be fun to teach a kids’ class,” said Ms. Estes, now a stylist and jewelry designer in Honolulu. “And then the moms were like, ‘Can you do one for us?’”

The success of the workshops, which she later brought to other Hawaiian islands and to Japan, led to the book. In early 2020, she broached the idea of co-writing a volume to Jennifer Fiedler, a local author whose family, like Ms. Estes’s, has been in Hawaii for generations. It now is scheduled to be published in the United States on April 25 by Ten Speed Press, a division of Crown Publishing Group.

Ms. Estes said that until about a decade ago, lei making seemed like a forgotten part of Hawaiian culture, celebrated in the state on May 1, or Lei Day, and then neglected the rest of the year.

“When I got married in 2008, I didn’t wear a head lei. But now brides want lei,” she said. “This book is meant to celebrate that, to show all the beautiful styles and excitement around lei, and how it is such a part of everything we do.”

The book’s 11 chapters address different ceremonial occasions to make and wear lei — including luaus, sporting events, weddings and fund-raisers. (Ms. Estes said there even is a lei protocol for visits to the islands’ volcanoes, a kind of tribute to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire.)

Featuring more than 100 photographs by Tara Rock depicting garlands of tropical flowers commonly used to make lei — bougainvillea, ginger, hibiscus, plumeria and pikake, a sweetly perfumed Indonesian jasmine traditionally found in bridal leis — the book is less a D.I.Y. guide than a recounting of some personal anecdotes about the craft.

The stories include some unusual details, such as the fact that it takes about 120 pua kenikeni flowers to make a lei and the flowers change color depending on the day they are harvested. Or that Niihau, the privately owned island that is the westernmost inhabited spot in the Hawaiian chain, is home to a style of lei made from the tiny white pupu shells that wash ashore. Or that Hawaiians make lei when visiting different places on the islands “just to celebrate the occasion of being there,” Ms. Estes wrote.

In the book, Ms. Estes emphasized the importance of gathering, cleaning and organizing materials before making a lei, which can take three hours or more, depending on the style.

“If you prep and clean everything to the right size and it’s all in perfect stations, the process can go faster,” she said. “It is 100 percent a Zen process. You can’t hold your phone because you need both hands.”

She also encouraged readers to create their own leis using whatever is abundant, like the time she was in Colorado and wove a lei using aspen leaves. “It’s about knowing the technique and the aloha behind it,” she said.

Most important, she said, is the understanding that you should never, ever throw away a lei.

“If you have to, cut the string, take the flowers off and throw them in the yard,” she said. “What we call your mana, or energy, goes into making that lei, and you’re not going to throw that into the trash. You have to honor it.”

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