The hala tree, for­mally known as Pan­danus, is na­tive to Hawai­ian and Pa­cific is­lands. It stands tall on an above-ground root sys­tem, look­ing like some­thing from the fan­tasy film Avatar. The top is an ex­plo­sion of green, grow­ing like no other Hawai­ian veg­e­ta­tion, each leaf edged with ra­zor-sharp thorns. The tree flour­ished in the is­lands long be­fore the ar­rival of the first Poly­ne­sian voy­agers. Leg­end says, when the vol­cano god­dess Pele landed in the is­lands the tree's spiny-edged leaves snagged her ca­noe. It an­gered her and she

pulled it from the ground, ripped it apart and threw the pieces across all the is­lands where they took root and still thrive to­day.

Like all trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion, gen­er­a­tions of voy­agers found many uses for the hala tree. Ev­ery part of the tree was and is used, from flower to pollen to blos­som to fruit, leaf, bark, wood and root. Each gen­er­a­tion learned the tra­di­tions of weav­ing the har­vested and dried leaves, al­ways ex­pand­ing the skills and cre­ativ­ity of those who went be­fore and pass­ing down their skill and knowl­edge to young ar­ti­sans.

Fast for­ward to to­day and ap­pre­ci­ate the rich and highly val­ued art of lauhala weav­ing. Fol­low­ing the con­cept of ho‘opono­pono, to make wrong right, weav­ing lauhala is con­sid­ered by the weavers as a bal­ance of en­ergy. To new stu­dents it is of­ten some­where be­tween a med­i­ta­tion and frus­tra­tion, but they carry on. Once bit­ten by the “weav­ing bug” they can't put their craft down.

To har­vest and pre­pare the lauhala for weav­ing is down­right dan­ger­ous. Each dry leaf that falls or is picked from the tree is edged with ra­zor-sharp thorns that must be de-thorned by scrap­ing. Then the leaves are cut into the cor­rect widths, rolled and stored, ready to be wo­ven into mats, bags and the highly prized lauhala hats.

“Two down, three up,” echos in the mind of ev­ery weaver and weav­ing stu­dent. That is the pat­tern for a first chal­lenge in weav­ing a sim­ple fan or bracelet. Once a stu­dent ac­com­plishes that chal­lenge they are usu­ally “hooked” on weav­ing. Some weavers say it is “sooth­ing,” oth­ers say it is stress­ful, yet they con­tinue to chal­lenge them­selves with more com­pli­cated pat­terns like hats, large mats, even sculp­tural pieces. The hats are fea­tured in ma­jor mu­se­ums across the

globe. From the Smith­so­nian in Wash­ing­ton D.C. to Honolulu's Bishop Mu­seum and mu­se­ums across the oceans, lauhala weav­ing is re­garded as a fine art. To pur­chase a hat, buy­ers may have “sticker shock” when they see a tag that reads $400 to $600, maybe more.

In Hawai‘i, Aloma Wang is a weav­ing “rock star” ac­cord­ing to her stu­dents. She is one of a small group of weavers who fol­low the old tra­di­tions and also teach.

She doesn't have a fam­ily his­tory of weav­ing like the cadre of weavers who are grad­u­ates of Hawai‘i's famed weavers. Aun­tie El­iz­a­beth Maluihi Lee be­gan weav­ing at age six as a way to help her fam­ily make ends meet as they bartered the hats for what­ever they needed. Aun­tie Gwen Ka­ma­sugi, Po­haku Kaho‘ohanohano, and Aun­tie Gla­dys Grace were also life­time weavers. When she saw their work Wang says she had an im­me­di­ate pas­sion for the art “the mo­ment I saw the first pa­pale (hat)."

Aun­tie Gla­dys Grace was rec­og­nized as a Na­tional Her­itage Fel­low by the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts. Mu­se­ums have hon­ored her with ex­hibits of more than 70 hats. Wang says, “these shows are un­be­liev­able when you add up the hours and years it took to craft the hats and how many oth­ers Aun­tie Gla­dys made and sold.” Wang also is in­spired by the gen­er­ous qual­ity in weavers' lives. “Aunty Gla­dys would weave a base­ball cap, give it to a weaver and chal­lenge that stu­dent to make an­other just like it,” per­pet­u­at­ing the art of weav­ing. Sadly, not all weavers passed down their knowl­edge and tech­niques.

Wang was born in Sri Lanka, moved to Europe, then South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and has been in Hawai‘i for 30 years. She dis­cov­ered Aun­tie Gwen, watched her “magic fingers” weave a hat and knew there was, as she says,

“no look­ing back.” She made a bracelet at a class of­fered at Na Mea Hawai‘i, O‘ahu's only all Hawai­ian-made store. Her teacher said she had good hands for weav­ing and so she never stopped. To­day, she does teach small classes, three to six stu­dents at a time. Her work is now con­sid­ered mu­seum-qual­ity.

Aloma Wang's home stu­dio in Manoa houses her vast col­lec­tion of fin­ished pieces, and of course, those in the midst of com­ple­tion.

Aside from hats, Wang also weaves other ac­ces­sories such as the bags and clutches.

Wang keeps her lauhala weav­ing legacy alive through the classes she teaches.

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