Dream Weaver

For centuries, Hawaiian women have depended on the long, slender leaves of the hala tree for their livelihoods. Today, Lynn Ham Young keeps the ancient tradition alive.
By Paige Porter

Wearing a sundress the color of lemon drops, Lynn Ham Young walks barefoot onto the beach at Kauai's North Shore. With arms full of dried hala leaves, she leads her three weaving partners to a cool cushion of sand. Here, a sunshade
of palm fronds intercepts the bright light of the afternoon. Each woman grabs a corner of a monarch-orange sarong and places it on the velvety sand where, for the next few hours, they'll sit with limber leaves and humble tools, weaving masterpieces with their calloused hands.

"To me the weaving is the easy part to learn," says Lynn, who began studying hatmaking nine years ago. "But the knowledge of the leaves, called lauhala--because lau, in Hawaiian, means leaf--takes a lifetime to understand. I can't pass a hala tree without wondering what its leaves are like. I must go see for myself."

Lynn's passion for weaving the leaves began soon after she moved to the island. "I've always gravitated toward tactile things," she says. The leaves of the hala tree, a member of the pandanus species, differ in texture, pliability, and size depending upon location and climate. For centuries, craftswomen have gathered sturdy yet flexible lauhala and washed, soaked, pressed, and dried them. Then, with handmade comb-like cutting instruments called ko'i, they slit the leaves into long, thin blades meant for weaving ornamental items such as baskets, fans, wall thatch, roof lining, and mats. The need for hats arose in the 1800s as the number of plantations grew and workers filed into sun-soaked fields. Weavers also toiled in the sun, painstakingly picking and preparing lauhala before crafting their products.

"When I first began, I was in pain all the time," recalls Lynn, her grape-green eyes shaded by a wide brim. "I had cuts all over my arms. Now I understand why the old-timers wore long sleeves and bandannas. People think the weaving is tedious. But the most labor-intensive part is gathering and preparing lauhala."

When Lynn moved to Kauai 28 years ago, she began to study this art, mostly by observation. She admits envying those who could weave with their eyes closed. "I remember walking by your house, watching you," Lynn says to Auntie Violet Goto, one of her weaving partners. "You would sit in your carport with Auntie Ella, who wore a big red hibiscus behind her ear, and you'd weave the days away. I wanted to join you but was afraid to ask."

Hawaiian women safeguarded their technique, as it was key to their income. In the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki in 1992, however, Auntie Gladys Grace, a master weaver from Honolulu, came to Kauai and taught weaving as a form of therapy for those stranded there.

"All the years I'd been on the island, I'd looked for someone to show me the craft," recalls Lynn. "It's a big secret among the aunties. It's their trade. But the masters are in their 80s and their children didn't know the craft. They'd seen their mothers' labor and opted out. After all, they'd grown up picking lauhala. It was a chore to them, not a pleasure. But I couldn't bear the thought of part of Hawaii's history fading away."

Auntie Gladys Grace recognized Lynn's determination--and her unique approach to plaiting the strips. While all lauhala weaving is intricate, Lynn's trademark is her labyrinthine patterns and vintage styles. "But I still recall my very first hat," says Lynn. "It was a simple weave, amateur, but I wore it for six months. I was so proud of it. Every hat since has been a lesson."

Her style resembles that of 88-year-old Auntie Esther Makuaole, a legend who demonstrates hatmaking at the Kaua'i Museum in Lihue, where her creations are on display. "I remember spending two days on a hat and getting 30 cents for it," says Auntie Esther, placing one of her own atop her froth of silver curls. "Thirty cents! These days, no one would put their heart into a hat for that."

Today, a finished product by Lynn--who doesn't advertise but depends on word of mouth--ranges from $150 to $1,000. "My hats are like my children," says Lynn, holding a cup-and-saucer-style version like a baby on her hip. "I don't do this because it's profitable. I do it because I can't put a price tag on the joy it brings me to make them for others. Every time I run my fingers down the spine of lauhala, I feel that this is it. This is my dream."