Janelle Kienow of Kauai Curators has been a Lei maker and passionate collector of shell lei for over 15 years. In addition to being a dedicated stringer, Janelle spends time advocating for the distinction of the Niihau Shell Craft by hosting visual comparisons and lectures in Hawaii and the Mainland United States. These displays and talks focus mostly on the Ni'ihau shell lei vs. the lei of other Hawaiian islands, human relationship with shell tools and adornments of the unique Shell Trade in Hawaii. In her spare time during trips to Hawaii, she volunteers for non profit organizations and is working to create a stronger presence and demand for Niihau Shell Lei globally.
Starting to String
I collected shells every morning for a solid year before learning any method of stringing. During that time, I collected diligently and sorted colors for 8 months and spending the next 4 cleaning the sand. Weaving was incredibly difficult at first and still is. There is a very complex and delicate history behind the craft. To hear one of my favorite Hawaiian artists describe the art, it is a flirtation with the sea. An act of gratitude and patience. I am every day trying to uncover the meaning and beauty of stringing shells. Every shell I pick, every beach walked, and every piece I complete adds to a sense of belonging to the sea.
With most stringing techniques guarded closely, I learned how to create different styles of lei by seeing and re-creating Ni'ihau and Kaua'i Lei. I then learned the European technique of how to twist shells (wili poepoe) backwards then forwards to create a seamless rope style lei. Twisting is not common among Niihau stringers. It took 7 years to successfully complete this difficult style.
To Work with Purpose
There is a unique draw that brings people to the practice of Lei Making. Those who weave flowers, elaborate leaves and seeds are part of a much broader culture. One drawn from a higher purpose. Each stringer has their own style and spiritual approach. We learn from each other with humility, share our lei and sometimes even our secrets. The main reason for these developing relationships between leimakers of different islands is to perpetuate the craft and celebrate the evolution of where it is going.
I have been working with Kauai Kahelelani and Niihau Shells for 15 years. My introduction to the craft was a 4 year apprenticeship, given one technique each year to practice on. It took many years of early mornings to learn the tidal shifts and storm systems that would bring these rare shells to the beach.
Shell picking is a meditation. Whether performed with a scientific interest, or a hobbyist's enthusiasm, it evokes a sense of gratitude. Pursued as a career, or a way of sustenance it takes on a whole new meaning. Hawaiian Leimakers have been making flower and shell lei for countless generations with a specific place in society. The tradition goes back even further to our first displays of modern behavior. The first jewelry in the world was made of shells over 100,000 years ago.
Introduction to Ni'ihau Shell Lei
Niihau is a small island near Kauai where Native Hawaiians live and gather the precious shells they need to make Authentic Ni'ihau Shell Lei. An average day of shell picking is similar on different islands. One wakes early, says prayers of gratitude to Ke Akua and the ocean, then shells are collected with reverence. Conversation is sparse. There are considerably more shells of higher luster on Ni'ihau than any other Hawaiian Island. It is important to learn the difference between each islands shells as they are all unique their own reef systems.
The traditional styles of Ni'ihauan Shell Stringers are largely considered to be the most pure and diverse. For the most accurate information on the culture of Ni'ihau and the history of Hawaiian Shell Leimaking, refer to the books on Ni'ihau Shell Lei and Pupu O Ni'ihau by Linda Paik Moriarty. To learn more about the efforts being made to secure and protect this rare culture visit Niihauheritage.org.