The Art of Hawaiian Featherwork

The first settlers from the Marquesas brought the art of feather work to Hawai‘i 1,500 years ago. Ancient Hawaiians believed that birds, endowed with the power of flight, could reach the heavens, and so their feathers, filled with the mana, spiritual strength, of the birds’ communion with heaven, were crafted into many items of royal regalia worn, and used by chiefs.

By the time Captain Cook arrived in 1778, the Hawaiians were making magnificent feather lei, cloaks, capes, helmets and kahili (royal standards). Feather work was exclusivly for and highly valued by ali`i (Hawaiian royalty) as it was a cherished symbol of wealth, prestige and power. Lei hulu manu, or feather lei, were the only feather adornments women of noble rank were allowed to make and wear.

Making lei hulu is tedious work that involves sorting the feathers by size and color, tying them in small bunches and fastening the bunches to an ‘olona-fiber cord. How the feathers are cut and placed creates different patterns and textures. Today the art of feather lei making is perpetuated by only a few kumus or teachers throughout the islands.