The ancient Hawaiians made use of a considerable range of fiber plants. Some of these they brought with them; others were discovered in the new island home.
Naturally available to the Hawaiians were a variety of vines, grasses, and tree barks that could be used as cord with little or no modification, but they found that, with a bit more effort, they could produce string, twine, or rope that was easier to handle and lasted a longer time.
First among the Hawaiians’ cordage resources, however, was an endemic forest plant, olonā. Its excellence made olonā cordage a highly valued item, not only among the Hawaiians themselves but also, later, among Western sailors, and its virtues enabled Hawaiians to create some of the finest pre-contact handcraft in the Pacific. (Abbott)
“Olonā was a thing highly prized by one and all. It was very valuable and planters raised it extensively. … There were, however, few places where olonā would grow and hence, not all people cultivated.”
The ancient Hawaiians undoubtedly discovered the valuable fiber of this plant at a very early time. They were intimately familiar with the local flora and its economic utilization. The olonā is mentioned in many of the old songs and legends.
“It grew in rainy districts and in marsh lands and in those parts of the mountain which were saturated with moisture; it did not grow on bare mountain sides but on those ridges where bananas grew and water ran constantly and where there was plenty of moisture. It throve on the windward side of the islands and few places besides.”
“When people in old days planted olonā they first looked for a good place in the mountains to plant, a valley where it was fertile and flat, perhaps below a cliff in the bed of a stream.”
“Here they cut down the pulu ferns, chopped down the trees and cleared out the weeds. The planting was done like the planting of the wauke from the young shoots or cuttings from the ground stem.”
“A field of olonā that grew uniformly with every stalk and every leaf alike was the planter’s delight, and if it grew on a level, two or three acres or more of it, his joy knew no bounds. It all grew up like the hairs on the head, with straight stalks and rounded leaves. In a year or more it was full-grown and the leaves began to turn yellow.” (Kamakau; Bishop Museum)
Special interest is attached to the olonā fiber as it is generally recognized to be the strongest and most durable fiber in the world. No other fiber is recorded to exceed it in these two important characteristics.
This fiber is the best of all fibers known at the present time. The three dominant features are (1) the great tensile strength (about three times the strength of commercial Manila – about eight times as strong as hemp;) (2) its great resistance to deterioration in salt water; and (3) its pliability, and thus its adaptability for spinning by hand.
Among the Hawaiians it was put to a great variety of uses. All fishing lines and nets of the best quality were invariably made of olonā, because of its high resistance to the action of salt water. (MacCaughey, 1918)
Fishing lines and nets made from this fiber by expert Hawaiians present an appearance of so uniform a caliber and twist that it would lead one to believe that the fiber had been made by the most intricate machinery.
Olonā lines and nets which have been in more or less constant use for over a century are almost as good as new, and are handed down from generation to generation as precious objects. Most of the natives are very unwilling to part with any of their fishing gear that is made of olonā.
The very serviceable carrying-nets, koho, in which the wooden calabashes and other objects were borne, were commonly made of olonā fiber. Olonā was not used for making the bark-cloth or kapa itself, but threads and cords of olonā were used for sewing the kapa.
A stout cord of olonā was usually attached to the wooden war-clubs and dagger-like swords, for suspending the weapon from the wrist. This prevented the loss of the weapon during the fray. For fastening the stone adz, ‘o‘o, to its wooden handle, olonā was always the preferred fiber.
It was used for the very fine and pliable netting which served as a groundwork for the feathers, in the construction of the splendid garments and insignia of the ancient royalty and ali‘i. The brilliant scarlet and yellow feathers were skillfully woven by the women upon the imperishable framework of olonā. (MacCaughey, 1918)
“Olonā is so universally the basis of Hawaiian feather cloaks, that feathers mounted on any other substance would be at once classed as foreign to the group.” The fineness of the net varies as does the size of the thread used for cloaks.
In featherwork, feathers are mounted and tied with olonā cordage to nets made of well twisted, closely netted olonā. Feathers are inserted in rows and bound by two or three turns of the olonā threads. (Brigham)