Gladys Kukana Grace

Lauhala (palm leaf) weaver
Portrait of woman with flower-laced hat.

courtesy of the artist


Gladys Kukana Grace learned the art of weaving lauhala (lau = leaf, hala = pandanus tree) from her maternal grandmother, Kukana, through a longstanding oral tradition. Her grandmother's family was known in particular for weaving hats with the technique of light and dark contrasting patterns known as anoni. In her youth, the family would weave hats as a source of income. As an adult, Grace worked for 25 years as a sales clerk at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange and raised her family. When her husband became ill she took up weaving hats again, recalling the patterns her grandmother had taught her.

In early Hawaii, because a family's livelihood was tied to weaving, knowledge of techniques and patterns were closely guarded family secrets. However, due to her desire to keep traditional lauhala weaving from becoming a lost art, Grace, a weaver for more than 80 years, is open to teaching anyone who has the desire to learn about the history and culture of lauhala weaving. In addition to giving private lessons at her home, she also has taught classes and workshops throughout the Islands. Her lessons include where and when to collect lauhala, how to prepare it, and then how to master the complex patterns of weaving. She also participated in the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship program from 1988 to 1998.

In 1997, Grace co-founded the weaving club Ulana me ka lokomaika'i,which means "weaving with goodness and kindness from within," to give students and weavers a venue to learn. In the past few decades, she has been a featured artist in festivals and conferences in the Pacific Islands and on the U.S. mainland, including the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her weaving is highly sought after by collectors and museums -- although she prefers to give it away to family, friends, and students -- and her works have been displayed in the Bishop Museum, the Kauai Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and Kamehameha Schools. She was the recipient of the 2008 Kahili Awardfrom the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the 2010 Mamo Award from the Bishop Museum.

"Auntie Gladys", as she is known, has devoted her life to making sure this longstanding tradition will grow and flourish among generations to come: "Weaving lauhala is like weaving a relationship.... It is weaving together the older with the younger generation like a family.... We are all connected through weaving."


Photo courtesy of Gladys Kukana Grace

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA

[Frank Masagatani also participated in the interview]

NEA: Aunty Gladys, can you tell me where you were born and where you lived when you were a child?

Gladys Kukana Grace: I was born South Kona, Hawaii. And I was raised by my grandmother.

NEA: And did you have brothers and sisters?

Grace: Yes, there were ten of us -- six brothers and four sisters.

NEA: And did everyone live with your grandmother?

Grace: Yes, she took care of us. She had her mother too -- my great Grandma.

NEA: That was a lot of people she took care of.

Grace: Yes, it was. We didn't realize it was hard for her to take care of us until we grew older.

NEA: When were you first taught to weave lauhala?

Grace: I think it was about ten, between ten and twelve years old. We had to go and gather [lauhala] leaves, that was important thing, and get it ready for weaving mat or hats.

NEA: And did she teach you how to weave?

Grace: Yeah, I had to watch her -- the way she weaves -- and without asking questions. So we learned to weave by watching her and if we made mistakes, she'd do it herself, so I didn't quite learn or get interested in hats, but I loved to do floor mats. The floor mat was a lot easier to learn. My Grandma made floor mats -- wall to wall carpeting for the whole house. She was good at that and she would go ahead of me and I just followed her and that's the way I learned to make the mats. I learned [how to make] hats a little bit, not much. But I wasn't interested in hats.

I planned to move to Honolulu because I wanted to go back to school. So I left my Grandma. The day I was leaving she and her friend were learning a new pattern of the two color hat, they call it anoni hats. So when I saw that I got inspired but still my mind was made up to come to Honolulu. So I didn't weave for almost forty years, I think.

I came to Honolulu, I worked a little while and I didn't have a chance to go to school. I got married and raised a family and then I went to work for 25 years, until my husband got sick so I had to take an early retirement and stay home. Before I left from working I was walking one day and I started to be concerned about where I was going to get extra money. So as I was walking to work I heard a voice speaking to me -- what are you doing with your hats? I don't know if I had imagined it but I was full with joy. I said, "Oh yes, I'll go back and weave." And that's how I started to go back to weaving hats. I started with hats because I saw the anoni hat and that's what made me come back to weaving hats. And that's where it all started.

NEA: Now when you were a child, did you like weaving?

Grace: Not really, because I didn't know what it's all about. The lauhala, when you look at it, it's boring. That's the way I felt. I didn't take interest until that day happened. I remembered when I saw the anoni -- I saw how it was beautiful and I thought in my mind, I cannot let that go, I have to bring it alive. That's all I thought in my mind, and so I did.

NEA: There's no instructions written down for weaving lauhala -- it's handed down from generation to generation. Did you have a hard time remembering how to weave after all those years?

Grace: It's hard to explain -- it wasn't hard for me. I had the joy in me and it's a joy I felt that no one can take it away from me. So when I retired from work, I went into weaving. And I knew there was more to it -- but I just didn't learn the beginning from my Grandmother. She didn't tell us what we had to do, like the way we teach today. Everything has to be counted and accounted for. If you double weave, that's weaving by two strips, and you have to count your beginning to come out right. The whole hat will finish correctly, but I didn't learn that, I had to figure it out myself. And so I was doing that part and I remember that I wanted to cry because I know it's there but it's not coming out. Then, one day I remember I sat down and tried again. As if my something opened up in my mind and just everything flowed right in. Things that I hadn't learned from my Grandmother, it all came to me, and I think that's why I have this joy I want to keep teaching and teaching to everyone who wants to learn and I can't stop.

NEA: When you were a little girl, your Grandmother would exchange the hats and the mats for food?

Grace: We did have fisherman and taro made into poi was the main food for people those days. They planted lots of bananas and all kinds of good things to eat and we didn't starve. So the hat making was only a supplement. If you want to eat something fresh -- fresh meat and fresh chicken -- then you take it to the stores or the supermarkets to exchange for food. The hats cost only 25 cents. So the women had to make lots of hats. Day and night they make hats to get enough to take it to the grocery stores. The hats today cost from $150-$500. Those selling for $500 are very, very perfect, almost perfect, they're fine weave. They go according to the size of the hat and strips.

NEA: Do you process and pick the leaves that go into the hat?

Grace: Oh yes, when you first teach students, the first thing is to take them to the tree and teach them to select the best of the leaves. The leaves could be still on the tree, or on the ground. I teach them to select the best of the leaves -- fresh ones, not old ones, they get all brittle. So you want something that's pliable. Not every lauhala tree has good lauhala. Some are very hard and thick. They are good for baskets. Or floor mats. But for the hats, you have to pick the best leaves. And then after you pick the lauhala, there's a lot of time put in to clean, to take the thorns out, wash it with water, and then strip it before you ever start to make the hats. So when you think about all the time, the money is not enough for that.

NEA: You have to love it.

Grace: Yes, you have to -- that's why I try to teach [my students] you weave with the goodness of your heart within. If your heart is good, clean, and your spirit is good, then you are able to learn to make a hat and make beautiful hats and your hat will look how beautiful you are. And if you don't feel good, you're angry with anybody or you're not a pleasant person, your hat will show everything on it. So I teach them, weave with how you feel inside you and it makes you become a good person. If you ever see the hats that these ladies that I taught make -- they are so beautiful that it looks just like them, how beautiful they are. They are beautiful; I'm very pleased with all these ladies that learn from me. They don't depend on those hats as their income. If they have extras they'll sell it and spend money on buying leaves because it's hard to get leaves now because of the property building -- condos and everything -- they're cutting down some of the trees so we don't have too many lauhala trees left. I tell them to keep planting in their yard. It takes about five or six years before they're ready.

NEA: About how many leaves do you need to make a hat?

Grace: Well it takes 25 to 30 whole leaves; it depends on the size. If you're making a small hat, it only takes about 20-25 whole leaves and if you're making a larger one, well that takes maybe 30 or more leaves. It's about two or three ounces worth after you clean everything to make a hat because the leaves are so light, [they] feel like paper.

NEA: Now traditionally, like when you were young, lauhala weaving was taught within the family. Why was that the case?

Grace: Because they didn't have time to go teach anybody but their family. Those days were depression years, in the late 1930s, and they really had to work, put a lot of time in making hats for big families to have extra food, although they plant potatoes and pumpkin, a lot of good food. But there were no jobs there and so they had no money to buy food. So that's why they had no time to be teaching. So they just teach their family to increase their amount of hats to [be able to] turn into the store.

NEA: But when you came back to weaving, after all that time, you wanted to teach students?

Grace: I wanted to, because I wasn't a business lady. Every hat I make I give away, so I knew I might as well teach. I wanted the hats to come alive. Even in the state of Hawaii, they hired me to go out and teach so that the hats wouldn't be lost. It was going to get lost. During the second World War, nobody was wearing hats; they had the new hair styles and nobody was wearing hats and nobody was teaching.

I had this within me; I wanted everybody to learn. Even man folks are learning now. Yes, we have about five men learning and pretty soon we'll have more because they're retiring.

NEA: Well one of the men is Uncle Frank [Masagatani].

Grace: Oh yeah he was one of my first ones. Thirty years ago. And I didn't know how to teach him because I only learned to speak Hawaiian. Raised by my Grandmother, I didn't speak English. So the weaving was in Hawaiian.  But I did what I can do. As I'm teaching I'm learning too from them.

NEA: Now Uncle Frank, what made you decide you wanted to learn how to do lauhala weaving?

Frank Masagatani: Well, let's see now. My wife really loves wearing hats. Every Sunday, she wears a different hat, no matter where she goes. Day and night she has her hat on and I was too cheap to buy her any hats so I decided I had better go out and learn how to do it. It was almost thirty years ago that I found Aunty Gladys and she was willing to teach. And her method of teaching -- how she learned it back then is still what she uses today: listen with your ear, look with your eyes, close your mouth, and don't ask too much questions, and learn with your hands by doing. And that's how she teaches even today.

She would weave; I would sit a few yards away and just watch her. And then she would tell me, "Okay now go home and do it." So I would go home and try and try and try. The method of her lauhala weaving is what they call anoni, which is two-tone color. They have two colors of lauhala, one lighter than the other, and then it consists of many, many different designs and like she had mentioned, none of these is in any written book. She would tell me, this is how it looks like and I would go home and try, try, try and come back the next week and show her the finished product and we would go into the next design and it went on until she showed me about 16 different designs. And you could never find it anywhere that's written. It's all in her head. And it's not a secret; it was passed on by her Grandmother, and that's something that she wants to share knowing that back thirty years ago the art was being lost. And she wanted to bring it back, knowing that once she goes, everything would have gone. But today we have well over 100 people that's weaving Aunty Gladys' method, whereas back then, when I first started, I swear in the whole state of Hawaii there were maybe eight weavers, nine at the most, and Aunty Gladys. I was fortunate and blessed that I was able to find Aunty Gladys.

NEA: Now you and Aunty Gladys co-founded together a lauhala weaving organization. What's it called?

Masagatani: It's called Ulana me ka lokomaika'i. It's ?weaving with the goodness and kindness from within'. It's actually a support group. We were having formal classes on a yearly basis, maybe taking about ten to fifteen students and after the six-week formal class, they were lost, you know. Where do I go? Who do I call? They can't be calling Uncle Frank or Aunty Gladys every day asking them questions so she and I decided that maybe what we should do is form a support group where all these people can come, get together, talk story, weave, and share ideas on a weekly basis. I was able to find a location where we were able to do that. It's been twelve years now that we've had this organization and right now we're meeting three times a month, and then we still share ideas with each other and it's a fun thing.

NEA: There are particular patterns that are a part of lauhala weaving and especially the anoni style of weaving. Can students within that still find a way to express their own creativity?

Masagatani: Oh yeah. This lauhala thing is unlimited. Every month that I go there and talk and discuss with these young ladies new ideas come out. It's just unlimited, I'm just amazed. Even this morning when I saw Aunty, I saw a bracelet on her, and I said, "Oh Aunty, where did you get that bracelet from?" I've been trying to make bracelets for thirty years and I have never seen a design like this one. So she said it was made by a gentleman on Maui. Thirty years ago I was the only gentleman around! It's never ending. You know lauhala weaving just goes on and on and on. Even from the past, they even made sails out of lauhala. There are countless things that they can do with it, and the design too, it's just unlimited.

NEA: Aunty Gladys, how did you find out that you became a national heritage fellow?

Grace: Oh I received a phone call early in the morning. Barry Bergey announced that I was recipient for the award. And I was shocked, you know? After he told me, I didn't know if I wanted to cry or what; I was so shocked to hear that.

NEA: Did you think about your Grandmother?

Grace: Well, later I thought of her and then later I thought of this: you know, most husbands would tell their wives, get this lauhala out of this house, it's rubbish. I say, "This rubbish has [made] me famous!" Then I started thinking, "How did they know my name?" "How did they get this?" And it was one of my own [students] that sent in the application. I have a lot of things to think about and I want to use some of the money to continue my work, because I love to teach. There's more to teach, there's more things to learn, and [I'd like] to be able to spend time to do some lauhala planting on the big island.

I have to tell you about lauhala. You know these lauhala leaves, they are green at first, and then when they're ready they are all dried up. The lauhala, it comes in all different shades. It's beautiful. I just love to look at these leaves. They have some white, all white, and most of them are natural colors. They have the chocolate brown, and the lighter brown, all different shades, and that's where all the beautiful hats come from. And that's where the anoni came from and anoni means interweave, or mix. They didn't make too much anoni in the old days because there was no market for anoni. Anoni now is all over, all this of young generation are making anoni hats.

NEA: What does it feel like when you're actually weaving?

Grace: Well, it's a lot of work to process [the lauhala], clean all the dirty leaves. But after, you think about how this beautiful hat came out from these leaves and they were not nice leaves, they were full with thorns. That's where I have this good feeling, to see something beautiful. You can make a beautiful hat out of these leaves.

Masagatani: As far as how I feel about when I am weaving, that's part of Aunty's teachings: never make two or more hats at a time, you just make one hat and you think of the person you're making the hat for and the finished product will be a perfect fit for the person you're making it for. That was the pretty much the lesson that I learned the first day, that it should come from the inside and not just doing the up and down weaving. It should [be felt] from within and that's where that Ulana me ka lokomaika'i comes from. From Aunty's teaching.