We know the Hawaiian lei as a celebratory tradition in the islands, the fragrance from the floral garland uplifting a room long after its flowers have wilted.
A feather lei, on the other hand, may be void of scent – but it is filled with the mana (energy) of past generations. For Mele Kahalepuna Chun, a third-generation featherwork artist, of Oahu, exploring this sacred Hawaiian art started at the age of five, when her tutu (grandmother) began sharing the family’s featherwork legacy.
“To me, featherwork is what I’m here to do,” Chun said. “I felt an obligation to my grandmother to do this and it has been a blessing.”
With their roots in Hawaiian culture dating back to 1,500 years ago, feathered clothing and accessories have long signalled royalty and respect. Feathers became synonymous with power, rank and status in Hawaii. In fact, leis, cloaks, capes, helmets and kahili (a long pole decorated with feathers on one end) could only be worn by the various ranks of Hawaiian ali’i (the high chiefs, who were considered to be descended from gods). The longer the cape, the higher the rank.
Various patterns and colour also signified class and lineage. The famous yellow cape of King Kamehameha, who ruled Hawaii until 1819, was made from the most prestigious feather colour. It took around 450,000 of these rare yellow feathers (taken from the Big Island’s now-extinct mamo bird) to make up the cape. Skilled catchers caught the birds, removed the needed feathers, treated the birds with salve to heal and then released them.
Featherwork is still time consuming today. There is no hack that has evolved the process. A single feather lei, Chun said, takes approximately 40 hours for one person to complete. For every inch of featherwork, 30 to 40 feathers are needed, which are woven together individually. This is also part of why such an accessory is the ultimate form of gratitude, respect and aloha (love). While a feather lei can cost between $200 and $1,000 and is generally reserved for special occasions, the recipients are touched by the gift of time. Wearing a piece of history is much more than a congratulations, but a reminder of the hands that have kept this piece of culture alive.
A seamstress first, Chun’s grandmother learned the art of featherwork when she was asked to make feather leis in 1955 for contestants of the cultural celebration known as Aloha Week (now called Aloha Festivals). But even by then, the art of featherwork was declining. “People would tell my tutu, ‘That’s a dying art’ and she would respond ‘No, no, not if I can help it’,” said Chun.
In the 1970s, during the Hawaiian cultural renaissance when traditions like hula made a resurgence, featherwork was part of the boom. The spike in interest in learning and preserving featherwork had Chun’s tutu, Aunty Mary Lou, teaching all over the island, including weekly classes at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum – now home to the most extensive collection of featherwork alongside other exhibits celebrating Hawaiian culture. By the early 1990s, Aunty Mary Lou had opened her own shop with her daughter Paulette.
Chun took over the family business when her mother, Paulette, died in 2014. Chun knew very little about the business side of featherwork. She said she had to leaf through receipts and chequebooks to help piece together the day-to-day operations. Finding a rhythm came from letting go of the stress that comes from the logistics of running a business and remembering her purpose, she said.
A new chapter began for Chun in February 2021 when she relocated Na Lima Mili Hulu No’eau (which translates to “skilled hands that touch feathers”), the shop that her grandmother opened 30 years ago. Now situated in the Royal Room at the Waikiki Beachwalk, a shared space that includes an interactive exhibit curated by the Hawaii Music Hall of Fame, Chun admitted that leaving behind the physical location that housed her grandmother’s legacy brought forth tears.
“Closing the store didn’t mean we were done; we were just moving in a new direction,” said Chun. “I hung the picture of my mother and my grandmother and said, ‘Well, here’s home, I hope you like it, I hope you like what we do with it.’ Now I feel the same sense of comfort and love and home that I felt in my grandmother’s shop. Others tell me the same when they visit.”
When she’s not working on commissioned pieces, Chun teaches. Her students are a diverse group of learners, from local school children who need to do a hands-on project for their Hawaiian studies programme to a group in Los Angeles who have proven the impossible: that featherwork can be taught over Zoom.
Expanding the Zoom reach even further, Chun will soon begin instructing a hula school in Japan with a translator, helping the students make feather leis for a competition later this year.
“Working on feathers is my happy place,” said Chun. “My favourite part is teaching and sharing and watching people learn. That’s the most fulfilling part for me.”
Chun will continue this legacy until she cannot and then her own daughter, whose passion is theatre, plans to carry on the family tradition of preserving Hawaiian culture.
Until then, there’s just one more piece Chun promised her mother she would see through, which is to publish a book about making feather kahili. Feather Lei as an Art was published by her mother and grandmother and focused solely on leis. The illustrated manual is on the verge of making another print run thanks to the rallying of friends and students. With Chun continuing where her mother and grandmother left off, she is fulfilling another piece of family history.