Hats off

Jack Wilhelm has worn many hats since he’s lived on Kauai.

For more than 20 years, Wilhelm, who lives in Lihue with his wife Deedee, performed at the Kauai Surf Hotel and had a Polynesian show called “Keaka’s Adventures in Paradise.” Fifteen years ago, he took a position with Aqua Engineers, working his way up until he became the certified branch operator at Grove Farm’s ground-breaking Surface Water Purification Facility.

He also belongs to a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who ride every Sunday.

It was a lauhala “papale” (hat) he was given years ago that started him down the path to what is regarded as the current renaissance of the art of lauhala weaving. Six months ago he became an avid participant.

As a youngster on Maui, where he was born and raised, Wilhelm remembers watching his mother weave the leaves of the hala (pandanus) tree into useful items, but he didn’t get interested in learning the skill until after he’d been on Kauai for awhile.

“A man named Agapito Sadam” wove a lauhala hat for me while I was an entertainer,” he said, adding that he wore the hat for years until it “became rotten” and started to fall apart.

Rather than discarding the treasured hat, he decided to keep it and try to patch it.

“I was retired and thinking of other things to do. I’d gone through everything that was trying and challenging.”

Wilhelm went to the Kauai Museum, explained his situation and asked if there was anyone who could help him.

He was referred to a coconut hat weaver. In turn, he was introduced to Margaret Lovett, who has worked with lauhala for 25 years.

He checked out her private classes, found them challenging and interesting, and enjoyed watching Margaret weave. He decided to get involved.

“‘Hanapa’a!’ as they say in fishing. I was hooked,” he says with a laugh.

Lovett has been involved with lauhala weaving ever since she and her friend and associate, Ginger Alexander, were first introduced to it at the Kauai Museum. Both taught themselves the basics and eagerly embraced the art form, trying to learn all they could. (Tragically, Alexander was one of five people killed in the Anahola flood on Dec. 14, 1991.)

“Today, lauhala weaving is my life,” Lovett said.

Most recently, she has been focusing on creating and designing “anoni,” or two-color hats. Before she died, Alexander had learned the art of hat making and had made several.

Talk to Lovett for any length of time and you soon get a sense of how important lauhala is to her.

There is a tree in her yard. She gathers the dried leaves and has a variety of implements she uses to prepare the lauhala for weaving, an arduous process.

She travels throughout the state to teach and sell her wares at weaving conferences.

Over the years, Lovett’s involvement, knowledge and expertise has grown by leaps and bounds. She has learned from three respected and knowledgeable kumu: Aunty Esther Makuaole, Aunty Elizabeth Lee and Aunty Gladys Grace.

She said Wilhelm is eager to learn and is doing good. “He has done all the basic weaving and we are working on learning things that are the start of making a hat.”

Each item she teaches in her classes are another step to making the next item.

“Hat weaving is the ultimate and most difficult,” she explains. “The Hawaiian style of papale is very intricate.”

Lauhala has been used to create many items such as handbags, bedding, pillows, water bottles, mats, eye-glass covers, even iPod covers.

Ancient Polynesians also made sails for their voyaging canoes to harness the wind and propel them on their journey.

On a recent trip to the Big Island, Wilhelm learned about a bracelet that is made there out of raffia from the hala tree to show support for a safe journey for the Hokulea and its sister canoe. He has made a couple in support and would like to see the bracelet become a statewide symbol of support.

Lauhala weaving is such an intricate complex subject, with lots of information to learn. There is no way all of the information shared by Wilhelm and Lovett can be covered in one column. The good news is there is much information on the Internet for those who are interested.

Lovett is hoping Kauai will eventually be one of the stops for the lauhala exhibits. She acknowledges that there is much to be done before that will happen. “Climate control” is one of the more important things that needs to be addressed to protect the priceless items before the exhibit can come here.

My hat goes off to Margaret Lovett, Jack Wilhelm and all of the kumu and practitioners who are keeping this valuable art form alive for posterity. Aloha.


Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.


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