Marlene Leiker of Bainbridge Island, Wash., began work on a clutch purse Wednesday using the Hawaiian weaving art of lau hala at the 12th annual Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona Weaving Conference. CLICK FOR LARGE
A Big Island conference introduces the traditional Hawaiian craft to a new generation
KAILUA-KONA » More than 180 practitioners of one of Hawaii's ancient arts are getting together on the Big Island this week for the 12th annual Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona Weaving Conference -- an event that has grown from just a handful of participants.
The gathering, which attracts beginners and experts from around the islands and beyond, includes workshops, demonstrations and plenty of time for sharing.
Although the conference, which runs through tomorrow, serves as a reunion for master weavers of fiber from the leaves of pandanus or hala trees, the focus is on passing down the traditional art form to a new and younger generation.
"We are doing this all for the benefit of the students," said Ed Kaneko, a Kona master weaver and retired engineer. "Most of the students here are past the hill already, but we have some young, young ones."
Kaneko pointed to a middle school student, Mika Tomono, as an example.
"I started him when he was 10 years old. Now he's 14, and you should see some of the hats he's making," Kaneko said. "He's become in three years more than just a student."
Among the elders is Josephine Fergerstrom. The 79-year-old Kona native, who learned her skills from her grandmother, is eager to share her knowledge.
"The next generation is very important," she said. "My grandmother said it's about being a survivor. It helps the culture to survive."
Fergerstrom said she once calculated she has woven more than 25,000 hats since she was a child.
Marlene Leiker, 54, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., said she became interested in Hawaiian culture and traditional arts while spending part of the year living on the Big Island.
"I actually picked it up at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival demonstration last year," Leiker said as she began to shape a clutch purse. "I wanted to learn more about it."
Finding the four-day event at the Kona Village Resort was just the nudge she needed to continue her learning.
"I only get to do it when we are here on the Big Island, so this conference is great," she said. "I can't believe how many people are here."
Carol Zakahi, a second-year student, left, helped Nana Kawasaki-Jones thread a lau hala leaf through a pasta-making machine. Rolling the leaves helps soften and flatten them for use in ancient Hawaiian weaving. Big Island weavers produce mats, purses, hats and other items today for sale in shops. CLICK FOR LARGE
The 180 weavers, from interested amateurs to masters, make this one of the largest conferences in the 13-year history of the event. The first one attracted just 15 weavers.
Workshop topics for beginners include bracelets, fans, earrings and Christmas ornaments. For intermediate and advanced students, the kumu (teachers) are sharing their expertise on how to weave baskets, place mats and purses. They also are demonstrating how to "piko," which is the beginning for "papale" (hats) and other, more intricate woven objects.
Of all the ancient Hawaiian weaving arts, lau hala is the most practiced today, in part, because pandanus trees are abundant.
In the 19th century, with the arrival of Westerners, an increase in trade with the outside world brought cotton cloth and containers, leather goods and man-made fibers. Traditional weaving declined and the skill disappeared almost entirely.
By the 1930s, however, weaving had made a comeback and was a way of life for some Big Island families. They made everything from hats to coffee-picking baskets, which they traded for food at plantation stores.
Each family developed its own patterns and techniques, and would often keep their knowledge from outsiders. Groups and clubs still discourage written instructions, books or manuals.
Today, dozens of Big Island weavers still deliver newly woven purses, hats, table and floor mats, eyeglass cases and bracelets to a variety of shops frequented by residents and visitors.
Founded in 1995 by Aunty Elizabeth Maluihi Lee, who was designated a "Living Treasure" by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 1993, the conference has become a destination for those interested in perpetuating, preserving and ensuring the growth of the traditional art of lau hala weaving.