Aloha Fun: How to Make and Sell Leis Wherever You Are

Floral design leis | Oasis Floral Products You don’t have to be Hawaiian or in Hawaii to celebrate with fresh flower leis. Lei-giving is a great way to honor individuals anywhere. Birthdays, graduations, dances, parties, weddings, celebrations, presentations and even an office promotion can be considered “lei-worthy.” They are often given to couples heading for a Pacific Island honeymoon. Promoting leis in your business for upcoming summer events, outdoor parties, luaus and rehearsal dinners is a good way to offer a unique product that can increase seasonal business. What are the two main techniques for making leis? Which flowers and materials can be used? For what events are leis appropriate? When should you make your own and when should you buy in bulk? For help with the answers, I spoke with Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD of Honolulu, who has a lifetime of lei experience including recently designing a lei for the president.

A Hawaiian tradition

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Photo credit: Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD

A lei is a series of objects strung together in a garland to wear. Every Hawaiian culture has celebrated life with leis made from perishable and non-perishable materials. Fresh flowers, textural plant materials, pods, feathers and shells are often used. Leis symbolize aloha, a simple greeting that is also the Hawaiian term for offering love, friendship, welcome, compassion, appreciation or celebration. It’s considered impolite to refuse a lei. While islanders are known for elevating the tradition to a floral art form, lei-giving is still a ritual of their daily life. When you give a lei, you give a gift of your time, talent and creativity to another. [rev_slider alias="aloha-2"]

Photo credit: Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD

Leis can be tied in a circle around the neck or left open-ended draping from each shoulder. Open-ended leis are given to pregnant women, representing good health for the unborn child. Leis and other special gifts are often given encased in a hookupu, a fresh foliage container for a gift of honor or respect. Visitors to the island are often gifted with a lei as a sign of welcome. I recently visited the islands and again fell in love with leis. I set out to discover the secrets of making and selling leis to share with mainland florists.

Lei-worthy events

Any event can be considered lei-worthy. Birthdays, graduations, dances, parties, weddings, celebrations, presentations, even an office promotion. Lei giving is a great way to honor individuals. I was excited to receive a fresh and beautiful lei at each floral program I presented. I loved the look of joy I saw each time I re-gifted the leis to strangers before catching my plane to the next city. Mainlanders often use leis for the same purposes as islanders. The American Institute of Floral Designers welcomes each new inductee with a lei at their Leadership Gala each year. Engaged couples planning to honeymoon in Hawaii or other tropical isle are often gifted with leis at wedding showers and parties.

Two styles for making leis

There are two different styles or methods of lei-making. “You can design using either the haku or the strung method and it will have the same meaning,” Debbi explains. Floral design leis | Oasis Floral Products The haku method of mechanics is a repetitive motion: place and wrap, place and wrap. Floral design leis | Oasis Floral Products The strung method involves a long lei needle with thread, thin wire or dental floss attached that strings the flowers together. Regardless of the method used, when you pick up a lei nothing should fall out.

The most-requested lei

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Photo credit: Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD

Debbi’s most requested is a haku lei. “One can easily purchase a strung lei from the many lei stands,” she says.  “I enjoy designing various types of leis. I grow my own flowers and foliages so that I can design my own combinations.” “Just like designing a floral arrangement, my favorite part of the design process is really being creative with the materials I have available. You would also be amazed at what you can create with ti leaves.” “On the non-perishable side,” Debbi continues, “I've been creating feather leis and just attended a workshop on shell leis.”

Leis for hula dancers—and the president

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Photo credit: Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD

“My introduction into designing leis was through hula,” says Debbi. “As a dancer, I fashioned my own leis to wear. As a part of the hula dance, dancers wear lei po'o (head lei), lei a'e (neck lei) and kupe'e (wristlets and anklets).” Leis are also worn by world leaders. Floral design leis | Oasis Floral Products When President Trump made his first visit to Hawaii, the governor asked Debbi to design a floral lei for his arrival. Debbi chose the 'ohai ali'i dwarf poinciana because it represents the feather cloaks and helmets once worn by island monarchy.

Inside a traditional lei shop

We visited Pauahi Leis & Flowers, a Honolulu lei shop in Chinatown. It was amazing! We snapped photos as three designers strung piles of fresh flower blooms into leis. I watched a woman work a ribbon down the spine of a lei, place the flower stem below the previous flower, securely wrap a ti leaf around it and then tightly wrap a waxed string around the materials. She repeated the steps until the length of the lei was complete, then tied the ends together. Others use lei needle and thread to string the flowers into a lei. Bullion or bind wire could be used without cutting the flower stems.

Cost can be a challenge

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Photo credit: Debbi Barrett-Holt AIFD

“The biggest challenge for lei-making on the islands is supply and demand since many Hawaiians fashion leis,” says Debbi. “We have to try to keep the cost down for consumer affordability.” “You have those customers that appreciate the work and creativity involved in the design and are willing to pay for it,” she continues. “You have others that see the value but don't want to pay the price.” The intended use of the lei often determines how much the consumer is willing to spend. The same is true on the mainland, especially if flowers for the lei are imported. If you consider leis time-consuming or expensive to make, you can order leis to resell from many online wholesale sources. Some leis of traditional flowers cannot be shipped to the mainland due to agricultural laws, but many styles can. Floral design leis | Oasis Floral Products I saw inexpensive mass-produced leis selling from refrigerated display cases at a Honolulu Costco. Will this hurt the upscale lei market? Debbi thinks not. “You can also buy them at the convenience stores,” she says. “The customer gets the value they are willing to pay for and traditional leis are very important in our culture.” How can you encourage your customers to celebrate their special summer events with the beauty of fresh flower leis?

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I am making my first lei po’o for my daughter’s birthday. She graduated college last year and loved the graduation lei. She’s an Environmental Scientist with a passion for Hawaii and sea turtles, but presently working for municipal water utility lab. I can’t wait to surprise her! She has not a clue. Thank you, this was inspiring.

Paula Byrd July 10, 2020
On the Hawaiian Islands – Flora-Dec Sales, Honolulu

On the mainland – Wal and online craft stores. A lei-making kit is available on

Stacey Markuten December 18, 2019
Where can I get a lei needle?
Lana Tolmachoff December 18, 2019

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