Star-Bulletin Features

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Jennifer Aki works on a FIMOlei. Her jewelry creations
include crown flower, pakalana, wood rose, pikake and puakenikeni.

Is it real,
or is it FIMO?

These fake flower leis
are a craft-fair sensation

By Malia Rulon

"IS that real? Where did you get that?"

By now, lei-maker Jennifer Aki is used to these questions. She has been stringing puakenikeni, pakalana, pikake, ilima and crown flower for the last couple of years.

But she doesn't use flowers. She uses FIMO, a type of polymer clay that can be blended to create original colors and formed by hand into any shape one can imagine -- whether teddy bears or Spam musubi -- then baked to last. But it's the FIMO leis that are attracting all the attention.

"It looks exactly like the real thing, so it's very popular," Aki said.

Fellow crafter Chris Gillman from Hilo calls them lei mae'ole -- leis that last. "You'll never have to buy another lei," she said. "It'll last forever and it'll never die, bruise or wilt."

These "eternal leis" can be worn to work or special occasions, tied around the brim of a hat or hung in the home for decoration -- and they always look fresh.

Perhaps that's why these leis are so popular. Crafters say they sell out at craft fairs and must work overtime to fill orders.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Yellow, orange and white FIMOare blended, flattened
and cut into petals using a tear-shaped tool.

"The demand is big," said Gillman's FIMO partner, Sheila Ogawa. "I cannot keep up with it."

Ogawa, who owns a gift-basket store in Hilo, said she never has any leis to display because as soon as she puts them out, they're sold. She actually has to hoard stock for craft fairs so she'll have enough.

"We were just doing it for fun," she said of her FIMO business. But when co-workers and friends kept requesting their creations, they decided to go into business.

Prices run as high as $150 for a three-strand pikake lei or $125 for a plumeria lei. Crown flower leis are about $95. Most others, including puakenikeni, pakalana, ilima, rosebud and single-strand pikake are $45 to $75.

But that's not why Gillman and Ogawa spend their free time sculpting the colorful clay. They enjoy making FIMO leis, earrings, hair picks, barrettes and brooches because it's a nice way to wind down at the end of a hectic day.

"For us, it's a stress reliever," Ogawa said. "It's something I enjoy doing and it takes my mind off everything else."

But it does take a lot of "time and patience," she added, admitting that she has burned many flowers in her quest to create the beautiful leis she sells.

"I burnt a whole lei and I wanted to cry," she said. "I had worked so hard on it."

But sometimes you get lucky, she said, and the burnt flowers end up looking "really nice." Since FIMO leis cost only $10.50 to make, with each flower costing less than 18 cents, the financial loss of a burnt lei is minimal. But the emotional loss can be astronomical since the leis can take anywhere from eight to 20 hours to make, depending on the kind of flowers.

"The process of putting together the lei is very time-consuming and intricate," said Aki, who has also started a FIMO business.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Petals are joined, the ends flattened to make a stem,
and a center is formed using a chopstick

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Blossoms are baked in a 220-degree oven for an hour,
then strung. Hotu Ma'ohi shows off a finished lei.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
FIMO blossoms are turned into pins,
earrings and necklaces.

"For the crown flower lei, there are 45 flowers on each lei and 10 petals per flower -- that's 450 petals that I must form individually by hand and put together," Aki said.

For this reason, Aki tells her customers that "lots of love and care" go into each lei.

"They know it's a piece of art, but they don't know how much work is involved," she said. "I always like to explain all the work that went into each lei so they'll appreciate it more and take care of it."

Aki said customers are always asking if her flowers and leis are painted. But there is "absolutely no paint involved," she said. "It's a matter of blending the right colors together."

Ben Franklin FIMO teacher Kehau Tehotu can attest to that. She's spent thousands of dollars on FIMO to originate and refine color "formulas" for every flower she makes.

"Orange comes in this color," Tehotu said, holding up a block of bright orange clay. "But the puakenikeni flower isn't this color."

To get the soft cream, yellow and deep orange of the puakenikeni flower as it ages, you must blend certain amounts of orange, yellow and white. "If you don't have these three colors, you'll have a pumpkin-looking flower," she said.

But every flower is a beautiful flower, and Tehotu is quick to reassure her students that since no two flowers are alike in nature, no two FIMO flowers will look alike either.

"How your hand and your eyes look at it is very different," she said. "And no two hands are alike."

Tehotu doesn't teach perfection, but she does teach students to enjoy what they're doing and to appreciate their own handiwork. She said she doesn't want her students to leave with their flowers looking like her flowers.

"I want their flowers to look like their own," she said. "Your flower shows a lot of your character, what you are and who the maker is."

Tehotu said she encourages students to develop their own style and then practice, practice, practice. "It's a lot of work," she said. "But once you get into this, it's a hard time stopping."

What is FIMO?

FIMO is a colored, oven-bake polymer clay that is distributed by the German company, Eberhard Faber. FIMO is an acronym for the clay's inventor, Fifi Rehbinder, and for "mosaik," a German word suggesting blended colors. Other brands of polymer clay are Sculpey, Cernit, Promat and Formello. Since FIMO is by far most popular, the clay often goes by the generic term, "Fimo."

Make it yourself

To make a puakenikeni lei you will need:

3 to 5 puakenikeni flowers
1 block FIMO Yellow No. 15 ($2.63 per block at Ben Franklin Stores)
1 block of FIMO White No. 0
1 block of FIMO White No. 01
1 block of FIMO Orange No. 4
Package of Kemper tools ($7.99 at Ben Franklin Stores)
Chopstick or hair pick with a pointed end
Scissors or X-Acto knife
Wax paper
Aluminum foil
Large cookie tray
3/8-inch ribbon
Two kukui nuts or large beads

First study real puakenikeni flowers. Your lei will look more natural if you familiarize yourself with them: Turn the blossoms over in your hands, noting color, shape, texture and curves.

Cut the following amounts from each FIMO block: 1/2-block yellow, 1/4-block White No. 0, 1/4-block White No. 01, 1/16th-block orange.

Mix the colors by holding the clay in the palm of your hand and rubbing your hands together. The heat from your palms helps make the clay soft.

Once the colors are blended, roll the clay into a ball and flatten it until it's approximately 1/8-inch thick. Place it on a sheet of wax paper and use your tear-shaped Kemper Tool to punch out the petals. (More advanced students typically skip this step and form their own petals straight from the blended clay.)

To form the petals, hold the pointed part of the cut-out petal between your thumb and index finger, flattening the rounded part with your other thumb and index finger. Continue until you have made five petals. Now connect the petals to make the flower, pressing the ends together to form the stem.

Holding the stem, insert the pointed edge of a chopstick or hair pick into the center of the flower and through the stem. Now you can refine the flower while it's on the chopstick. Smooth finger prints from the petals, bend them down and gently pinch each petal sideways to give it a special curl. Refer to the real blossom. When finished, hold the stem firmly and gently twist the chopstick to loosen and remove it.

Repeat these steps to make 30 flowers for a necklace-length lei or 60 for a longer one.

Place flowers on a cookie tray and cover the tray with aluminum foil. Bake at 220 degrees for an hour.

After an hour, open the oven but don't touch the flowers. Allow 15 minutes for them to cool and harden before you pick them up. Meanwhile, leave the oven open so it can air out.

Use a 3/8-inch ribbon to string the flowers into a lei, securing the ends with either a kukui nut or large bead. Now put your lei on and go show it off!

Ben Franklin
FIMO classes

Class fees do not include supplies, but students get a 10 percent discount on their materials.

Hawaii Kai

Koko Marina Center
Classes: Flowers, earrings, pins, necklaces and leis.
Times: 9:30 a.m. Saturdays.
Cost: $12-$24, depending on flower.
Call: 395-9429 a week in advance.


1020 Keolu Drive
Classes: Beginner and advanced classes for 20 FIMO flowers. Also, FIMO beads.
Times: Beginner classes, 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays; advanced classes, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; beads, 10:30 a.m. Mondays.
Cost: $18-$24 Sundays and Wednesdays; $10 Mondays.
Call: 261-4621 a day in advance.


2810 Paa St
Classes: Beginner and advanced flowers and leis.
Times: Advanced classes, 9:30 a.m. Fridays; beginner classes, 4 p.m. Fridays. Leis taught monthly, call for schedule.
Cost: $15-$25.
Call: 833-3800 by Wednesday noon to register.

Do It Electric!

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