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
January 21, 2003
David Murphey

Wearing a sundress the color of lemon drops, Lynn Ham Youngwalks barefoot onto the beach at Kauai's North Shore. With armsfull of dried hala leaves, she leads her three weaving partners toa 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 iton the velvety sand where, for the next few hours, they'll sit withlimber leaves and humble tools, weaving masterpieces with theircalloused hands.

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

Lynn's passion for weaving the leaves began soon after she movedto the island. "I've always gravitated toward tactile things," shesays. The leaves of the hala tree, a member of the pandanus species, differ intexture, 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 forweaving ornamental items such as baskets, fans, wall thatch, rooflining, and mats. The need for hats arose in the 1800s as thenumber of plantations grew and workers filed into sun-soakedfields. Weavers also toiled in the sun, painstakingly picking andpreparing 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 myarms. Now I understand why the old-timers wore long sleeves andbandannas. People think the weaving is tedious. But the mostlabor-intensive part is gathering and preparing lauhala."

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

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

"All the years I'd been on the island, I'd looked for someone toshow me the craft," recalls Lynn. "It's a big secret among theaunties. It's their trade. But the masters are in their 80s andtheir 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 Icouldn't bear the thought of part of Hawaii's history fadingaway."

Auntie Gladys Grace recognized Lynn's determination--and herunique approach to plaiting the strips. While all lauhala weaving is intricate, Lynn's trademark is herlabyrinthine patterns and vintage styles. "But I still recall myvery first hat," says Lynn. "It was a simple weave, amateur, but Iwore it for six months. I was so proud of it. Every hat since hasbeen 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 dayson a hat and getting 30 cents for it," says Auntie Esther, placingone of her own atop her froth of silver curls. "Thirty cents! Thesedays, no one would put their heart into a hat for that."

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