Throughout the year, Claudia (Cleo) Kanai busies herself making creations she and her 300 students consider to be unique in Hawai’i – beautiful, colorful and exotic leis made from ribbon.
Come holiday season, Kanai steps up the process, making batches of “Christmas leis” or encouraging her students to do so, as a way to celebrate the holiday season.
Kanai and her students admit flower leis are beautiful and fragrant, but from their perspective, the ribbon leis they create are just as beautiful and eye-catching.
The product, which takes anywhere between one to two days to make, inspires creativity, conveys aloha and can last indefinitely.
One of Kanai’s leis made 15 years ago is still circulated on Kaua’i and is held in high regard.
Kanai is owner of Creations by Cleo, the only professional lei-making shop on Kaua’i using ribbons, chiffon, kukui nuts and other delicate materials.
Kanai is considered a master because she has been involved with the craft for 17 years, the last nine teaching on Kaua’i and O’ahu. Her shop opened in June 2001.
Kanai is the only person on Kaua’i who offers professional lessons in the making of holiday ribbon leis.
The finished products, which are symmetrical and delicate in appearance, can be worn at formal settings or at parties.
Christmas leis made either by Kanai or her students hang in abundance in Kanai’s storefront window, along with leis that have been made during other busy times of the year for Kanai – graduation ceremonies and Valentine Day.
Some of Kanai’s favorite Christmas leis are the “Pikaki Crisscross,” the Rose Pikake, the “Ric Rac Rose,” “Crisscross Crown” and “Xmas Mini-millennium,” all ranging between $25 and $45.
Others holiday favorites are those with Hawaiian themes, using chiffon and kukui nuts. All the leis range from 12 to 20 inches.
In her nine years as an instructor of the craft, Kanai has made 200 Christmas leis.
And the holiday leis she and her students make today are better because manufacturers are making available more colorful and radiant ribbons, Kanai said.
At the same time, she has shortened the preparation time through experience. As a result, leis can be produced more quickly and in greater volume, Kanai said.
One of Kanai’s masterpieces was one she made for former President Clinton’s visit to Kaua’i this year. The melimeli (yellow) flower lei that was presented to him and which he wore took two days to make.
Clinton, election-year stumping for Democratic Party candidates before the Nov. 5 general election, also wore another ribbon lei made by Janice Bond, a student of Kanai for the past year.
Kanai said she developed a lasting and deep love for craft from her grandmother, Leoncia Langtad, who was “craft-oriented.”
Kanai said she initially got into making ribbon leis because of the unavailability of fresh flowers. The interest turned into a lifelong hobby that brings her constant joy, Kanai said.
“What is special about the ribbon lei is that you can be creative, you can give it away as a gift, and it will last,” Kanai added. “It teaches you patience.”
Before Kanai turned her hobby into a business, she worked as managers of restaurants in Honolulu.
Kanai, who grew up in Kapa’a and is a 1967 Kapa’a High School graduate, returned to Kaua’i for a visit in the spring of 2001 to conduct a lei-making demonstration at the Ben Franklin store in Lihu’e.
The experience changed her life, calling her to “come home,” Kanai recalled.
“I felt there was a need for my skill here and to help Kaua’i people out, to share,” she said.
Her business has flourished, thanks to a decision to work with students on a one-to-basis, as recommended in a survey done in Honolulu which Kanai said showed how to make a successful go selling craft goods in Hawai’i.
Kanai’s students recently got a lift with the visit of a ribbon lei-making master from O’ahu, Coryn Tanaka.
Tanaka was on the island to autograph her new book, “Making Ribbon Leis,” and to conduct a demonstration.
Another highly-revere master of the art and designer, Carole Mito, didn’t attend the gathering.
Kanai said anybody can learn how to make ribbon leis. Having sewing or crocheting skills is a plus, she said.
Some of the basic tools one needs for making ribbon leis: crochet needles, beading needles, wooden spools, fray checks, scissors and thread.
One of the most time-consuming parts of making a ribbon lei is to “mark” the ribbon. That involves marking holes on thousands of ribbon pieces cut to the same length, an inch or less in some cases, and threading the pieces.
Bond, who has made 50 ribbon leis since enrolling in Kanai’s classes a year ago, said making a ribbon lei is fulfilling.
“I have made leis al my life, and when I lived in Michigan, I wasn’t able to get fresh tropical flowers,” she said. “It takes being away to realize the importance of a lei, which are given when people leave and come to Hawai’i.”
While the flower leis have high appeal, the ribbon leis, as a gift, have beauty that is durable, Bond said.
Another student, Florence Riofta, a resident of Lihu’e and Kaua’i Marriott Hotel employee, said she has been taking classes since June 2001, and uses the them as a way to break the stress of every day living.
Hubert Brandt, a Kekaha resident and a retired systems technician from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, said he got into making ribbon leis three years ago as a way to relax.
He said he loves going to Kanai’s classes, calling her shop “his hideaway.”
For more information on the lei-ribbon classes conducted by Kanai, call 245-5657.