Tsugi Kaiama
Passing on the Art of Lei Hulu Papa

    Tsugi Kimura Kaiama of Waimea is a petite, energetic octogenarian who discovered at seventy-something that her hobby of making leihulu papa -- feather lei hat bands -- was in a class by itself.

    Though she had made feather lei for family and friends for more than fifty years, it was a phone call in 1987 inviting her to participate in an all-island lei exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts that helped her discover her work "was not to be ashamed of." The exhibition began to earn the humble Waimea artist public recognition for her extraordinary skill. Until then, it was largely word-of-mouth that she was "the best."

    Not long after the Honolulu exhibition, the phone in Tsugi's home rang again. This time, it was the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She was invited to be one of the twenty-five artists from Hawai'i to be featured at the 1989 Festival of American Folk Life in our nation's capitol. Everyone of the special guests were acknowledged "living treasures" for their skill and for perpetuating island traditions.

Below: Tsugi with display of her feather lei

Tsugi with display of her feather lei   Tsugi was reluctant to participate because she worried about whether she could do a good presentation and also, because she had few completed lei on hand to exhibit. However, she saw it as an "obligation" and with the encouragement of another of Waimea's "living treasures" --lei master Marie McDonald -- she consented to participate.

    Since then, Tsugi's phone hasn't stopped ringing. She doesn't advertise her work, but people from all over the world find her. And they don't mind waiting their turn to purchase a coveted lei. If the lei is of dark blue pheasant feathers -- the most rare of all-- the wait might be three to five years. Not all birds have this particular feather and those that do only have a few, so more than two hundred pelts are required. The finished piece is a prized heirloom to be enjoyed for generations.

    Actually, all of Tsugi's lei are heirlooms. As fast as she is, it still takes her about three hours to complete one inch, with thirty feathers per row, of stitching. Thus, there are only several hundred of her lei hulu papa in existence.

Tsugi creates comfortably at home on her cusstom-built (and self-designed) workbench. Though she doesn't actually "sign" her lei, each bears Tsugi's trademark style. First and foremost is her selection of feathers. "I work with carefully preserved whole pelts," she said. "It makes finding feathers that match in shape, size and color much easier. With plucked feathers, it's like finding a needle in a haystack. Also, I believe leaving the feathers in the pelt preserves their color and sheen."

Right  and below: Tsugi creates comfortably at home on her custome-built (and self-designed) "workbench."

    Her next step is sewing several foundation feathers at the edges of the band and then adding feathers across the center. This assures the lei lies flat and hugs the hat.

    Many of Tsugi's lei sport unique diagonal designs. "This is extremely difficult so it's seldom done. Tsugi's designs are as extraordinary as her precision stitchery," says Marie McDonald. Also noteworthy about Tsugi's style: her immaculate stitches on the back are covered over by a flap of fabric to protect the stitches from wear and tear. This is not the customary finish on feather hat lei, but it was one taught to Tsugi by her brother, Yutaka -- the famous Waimea paniolo.

Work in progress."I was young, just out of Hilo High School and fortunate to have found a job, but Hilo's humidity made me ill. I returned home to Waimea to recuperate and Yutaka suggested I try making feather hat lei. He was already working for Parker Ranch and he loved to wear a hat and was intrigued by feather leii. He asked a co-worker's mom, Mrs. George (Amabel) Freeland, a pure Hawaiian from Maui, to show him how.

    It's not surprising Tsugi took to feather work. She had watched her mom's meticulous craftsmanship as a seamstress supplementing the income for their large family of eight children. At night, her mom often knitted and Tsugi followed suit. "By the time I was eleven, I had knitted my own sweater with inside pockets."

    Tsugi and her older brother Hisao were sent to Hilo to continue their education. "In Hilo I attended a knitting class and the teacher asked each one of us what we wanted to knit, expecting us to pick simple projects. I showed her a pattern for a knitted dress and she protested that no eleven-year-old could possibly complete such a difficult pattern. Tsugi successfully knit the dress for the class. And several years later, after the quick lesson from Yutaka, she took up feather lei making.

Tsugi and her mother    "I made them for family and friends and sold a few, mostly to old kama'aina families, including the Carters, Wishards and Browns. For islanders, nothing could be more elegant to wear on a lauhala hat than a gorgeous feather lei," she said.

    Lei hulu papa isn't an ancient Hawaiian craft. Rather, it's an adaptation of the feather lei worn exclusively by ali'i of old Hawai'i. With the introduction of hats, it was a natural progression. Also introduced were the pheasants brought to Hawai'i to provide sport for hunting enthusiasts.
They flourished, especially on the rich lands of Parker Ranch.

Right:  Tsugi and her mother.

     Tsugi's brothers enjoyed game hunting and she often joined them. Early on, she learned the proper way to skin a bird and preserve the pelt. After a long day hunting on Mauna Kea, when everyone else would have gone to sleep, Tsugi would be up skinning birds. The meat would go back to the hunter, but the beautiful pelts would be rubbed with borax, left to dry in the shade, then put away in boxes. Her technique was so thorough that thirty to forty years later, the pelts are still in perfect condition.
But will the craft of lei hulu papa continue? If Tsugi has her way, it will, through her students. For years, she has offered classes at no charge. More recently, with support from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Tsugi took on an apprentice -- Leonetta (Leo) Kimura Mills of Waimea.

Leonetta Kimura MillsSays Leo, "She's my aunt and from the time we were very little, we were aware of her feather work. Aunt Tsugi couldn't stand to see us idle. . . she had all the nieces sitting around her table doing something-- with feathers, shells, seeds, painting or cooking. ... I decided after retiring from teaching that now was the time to learn lei hulu papa. . . . I was very apprehensive when I first started as her apprentice. How was I ever going to do as well as Aunt Tsugi? . . . She patiently taught me the basic skills, then allowed me to discover my own style."

Above:  Leonetta Kimura Mills

    This October, Tsugi and Leo have been invited to display their artistry at the Honolulu Academy of Arts as part of a month-long exhibit of "living treasures" and their apprentices. Other artists include weavers, canoe builders and ukulelemakers, to name a few. "Though they possess different skills, these master teachers have much in common: humbleness, a love for their particular art form and a willingness to pass it on. . . to keep it alive," says Lynn Martin with the State Foundation folk arts apprenticeship program.

Lei display    In spite of her devotion to lei hulu papa, Tsugi never wears a feather lei herself, but she loves wearing hats with flower lei and applies the same meticulous care in using fresh and dried flowers, mostly from her own garden. In fact, she took top honors for her fresh flower work in the 1995 Big Island Aloha Festivals Paniolo Hat Lei Contest. Many of Tsugi's lei will be exhibited at Cook's Discoveries during this year's contest on Saturday, September 20. They are not for sale because they belong to one of her better customers and friends, Masa Takaoka, also of Waimea.

    What's the best way to preserve and protect lei hulu papa? Tsugi Kaiama recommends keeping them rolled up in a cigar box with a little tobacco to chase away the bugs. Or, if you prefer leaving the lei on your hat, keep the hat in a plastic bag with several moth balls.

Tsugi with one of her prints    Born March 15, 1914 as the sixth of eight children of the late Masajiro and Hisamu Kimura, Tsugi and her brothers and sisters have warm memories of growing up in a very different Waimea. "We had no electricity. Parker Ranch would lend us a wagon on weekends and my dad and brothers would go up to Mana to gather a load of mamane wood to saw and chop and stack for heating, cooking, bathing and washing our clothes. We ironed with charcoal. Mom wove our blankets from raw wool from Humu'ula. It was hard work but we still had time to go camping, hunting and gathering delicious wild mushrooms."

    Tsugi remembers seeing cattle drives that, from a distance, "looked like mud flowing down the hill; the cows were almost one color -- brown. We were very proud to be part of Parker Ranch. We also took pride in our work, no matter what it was. I remember my late husband, George, admonishing one of his fellow workers on a road improvement project to work like it was his own business. Those are the kind of values that were instilled in us by our hard-working parents," she said.

    Tsugi has great pride in the next generation of her family -- especially her apprentice-niece, Leonetta, and nephew Larry Kimura, who heads up the Hawaiian studies program at the University of Hawai'i Hilo.

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