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Olonā is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Wild clumps were called ōpū olonā by early Hawaiians. [7,10] The first discovery and use by early Hawaiians is unknown, but olonā became one of the few native plants extensively cultivated by them. [11] Because there were few places suitable for growing large areas for olonā, it was generally grown in small "plantations" or garden patches called olonā māla. A large cultivated patch, sometimes up to 2 acres or more, was called olonā kīhāpai. Cultivated areas with olonā were weeded. [7,10,11]

As foreign ships arrived in Hawai‘i and began to trade, crews quickly noticed and commented on the local cordage. One seaman noted Native fishing lines “three to four hundred fathoms (1800 -2400 ft) long, and perfectly well made.” He continued that the lines he had purchased were “made with two, and others three strands, and much stronger than our lines of twice the size.” Indeed, the Native craftsmanship and inherent superiority of olonā cordage was to become widely known. During the 1870s, Swiss Alpine clubs eager to utilize the unusual strength and weatherproofing of the Hawaiian material purchased supplies of olonā cordage from King David Kalākaua.

Propagation was accomplished by means of root shoots, rooted branches, cuttings called "slips," or seeds. [8,10] Another method was to take the 'old stalks or toppled stalks and bend them to the ground and covered with soil to promote rooting and lateral branching to form new stalks.' Under cultivation, the lateral branches were removed from upright stems to reduce the number of holes in the bast fiber. [7,10]

Red-veined forms were preferred over green-veined forms perhaps due to stronger fibers. [8]

It took plants one year to 18 months to mature and stalks were woody. [7,11] At harvest time, the best stems taken were straight, about one or two inches thick and about ten feet tall. [10] Men, women and children shared in the harvest, but only women made the cordage. [11] Harvest and preparation techniques were thoroughly researched by Jenny Harvey of Swarthmore College. She notes: "The age of the olonā stalk made a difference in harvesting time. Plants around 18 months were preferred for netting because the bast fiber of older stalks is too knotty.


The bast layer was easily stripped off straight stalks with the fingers (Kamakau, 1976). Strips of bark were carried over the shoulder or rolled with the bark inside to flatten them out (Abbott, 1992). Most accounts report that the strips of bark were softened in water, sometimes running water, for a day or so, but natives interviewed by Dr. N. Russel (Smith, 1902) omit this step. Sheds were erected near olonā patches for scraping down the harvested bast fiber (Handy, 1972). Both sides of the bast fiber layer were scraped down on long, thin hardwood boards called lāʻau kahi olonā or papa olonā. The scraper was usually a sea shell, though later turtle bone from the plate of the shell was used. The scraper was sharpened frequently. Russel claims that scraping was completed in 1-2 minutes, leading him to advocate large scale production of the fiber-yielding plant. However, [Catherine] Summers (1990) implies that practice was required to master olonā scraping: only experts could scrape a few hundred strips in a day. The white ribbons of fibers (actually laticifers) remaining were separated with the fingernail, dried, and twisted into cordage by the women (Handy, 1972).



Prior to European arrivals, the Hau was so highly valued that permission to cut it was required of the Konohiki (village chief). Today it is often called "hau bush" and is termed an invasive plant, as it has taken over some areas where acres are covered high with hau, at the same time creating windbreaks and stabilizing the soil.

Traditionally, hau branches were piled near the shoreline to indicate fishing was kapu, because spawning was occurring in that area.

Hau cordage, called `ili hau, provided tying material used daily. The cordage is made by cutting off stems and younger smooth branches, making a slit lengthwise and removing the bark with the hands. The bark strips are then soaked. When the outer bark is slipped off, remaining are cream-colored smooth fibers for braiding and twisting into cordage. For some uses the outer bark isn't removed, eventually falling off with use. Hau cordage provided ropes for hauling and many other needs: slings; canoe lashing; strings for bows; net bags; carrying handles for water-gourds; fasteners for lauhala baskets; shark nooses; strands for lei making; strainers for coconut cream and `awa drinks; sewing material to piece together tapa cloth for clothing and bedding; a form of tapa itself; hula skirts of hau bark; sandals; and cord for snapping dyes into line designs onto tapa cloth.


One Hawai`i moʻolelo says that hau is a sister of the goddess Hina, changed into a tree. The people of Tahiti say hau is the grandchild of heaven and earth. Some people equate the brief span of the hau flower as representative of the transitory nature of human life.


coconut rope.jpg

Hawai`i is on the edge of the coconut belt. The coconut bears better nearer the equator, where it is more widely used than in Hawaii.   Niu is the kinolau of Ku.

Canoe sennit,  (coconut rope) is difficult to make.  It must be a very tight braid and because of the roughness of the fibers, only a few lengths can be made in a day.

The rope making process involves several steps.

  1. Husk mature dry coconuts and break into 8-10 sections. Remove shorter fibers next to outer shell, at both ends of the husk, and discard.

  2. Soak sections for 2 weeks, or until they are easy to work. Soaking fibers in running water helps in the cleaning process. Weight them down with a brick or stone when soaking.

  3. Remove sections--work sections by twisting or use table edge and press sections over the edge; peel and discard outer skin.

  4. Beat each section with a wooden mallet. Use a piece of hard wood or a flat stone for an anvil.

  5. Start beating. Beat sections starting from the center and working to the edge. Turn section around, repeat process to remove extraneous matter.

  6. Rinse to separate"chaff" from fibers. Shaking the bundle helps to remove the"chaff." Tools like shells or a strong comb help in removing extraneous material. Work through fibers. This process cleans and untangles fibers. Tie each section around middle. This is for easy handling.

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