82-year-old woman turns ribbons into strands of beauty

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi, Special to the Star-Advertiser

Lei Day is every day for Mellie Enos. On tables and in a storeroom in the garage of her Enchanted Lake home are lei — hundreds of the brightly colored garlands — that she has made from ribbon for the last 20 years.

Some resemble real tropical flowers such as ilima, pikake, plumeria and pua kenikeni. Others are purely fanciful.

“I once counted more than 900 leis,” said the 82-year-old retired home-care manager for the National Association for Retarded Citizens. “I don’t count them anymore; there are so many of them! I get bored if I’m not doing anything, so I make leis every day, even when I’m eating, watching TV or waiting in line somewhere.”

It all began when Enos retired in 1998. Looking for a hobby to fill her free time, she joined the Senior Club at Kaneohe District Park. There she saw a woman braiding a ribbon lei, which immediately piqued her interest.

Mellie Enos at her Kailua home.

“The lady said if I brought ribbon, she would teach me,” Enos said. “It was pretty easy to braid just two ribbons; I wanted to do more elaborate things.”

She read books about ribbon lei making and signed up for a class taught by crafts expert Carole Mito. “I learned the basics in a few weeks, then I decided I could come up with my own designs,” Enos said. “When I see flowers in gardens and people wearing leis or a floral print that I like, I figure out how to make them into a lei. I experiment, and if something doesn’t turn out right, I try again and again — sometimes many times until I’m satisfied.”

Sometimes a new type of ribbon, rickrack, yarn or embellishment (e.g., beads, kukui nuts and tiny premade flowers) will catch Enos’ eye. She’ll buy it and think about how it can be incorporated into a design. “There is no end to experimenting,” she said. “I feel so good when I come up with something different and people like it and want to learn how to make it.”

The supplies and equipment to make ribbon leis are inexpensive and readily available: ribbon (usually 10 to 45 yards), thread, scissors, straws, pens, tape, tape measure, glue gun, clothespins, barbecue sticks and crochet and sewing needles. The real investment comes in time and patience. Depending on the design, some degree of skill in sewing, crocheting and/or weaving is helpful.

“You keep working on your lei until you get the length that you want; most leis are 36 inches,” she said. “There a re simple styles that anyone, even kindergartners, can make in 15 minutes. The longest it took me to finish a lei was 15 hours, but it came out so nice, the joy and satisfaction I felt was worth it.”

Enos taught ribbon lei-making classes at Ben Franklin in Enchanted Lake Shopping Center from 2000 to 2007. She then started teaching at home; some of her students have been attending her class for more than 15 years.

Students Florence Takamori, 90, left, and Jenny Fujioka, 89, shared a laugh with their 82-year-old teacher Mellie Enos during a lei-making class last month at Enos’ Kailua home.

She counts them among the many good friends she has made through lei making. In 2007 the late James MacArthur, best known for his role as Danny “Danno” Williams in the original “Hawaii Five-O” television series, celebrated his 70th birthday in Palm Springs. Mac­Arthur’s wife, Helen Beth “H.B.” Duntz, commissioned Enos to make 30 lei in different styles for family members to wear at the party. (The two women remain in close touch.)

But Enos doesn’t need a party as a reason to wear a lei. Every time she goes out, she puts on a lei that matches her outfit.

“That’s one of the many rewards of making leis,” she said. “Instead of wearing a necklace, I wear a lei. Also, ribbon leis last forever; you can decorate your house or office with them; and friends and relatives feel special when you give them a lei that you’ve made yourself. My leis are conversation pieces; people often stop me on the street and want to buy the lei that I’m wearing. I tell them, ‘You can make it yourself! Let me teach you how.’”


Mellie Enos teaches ribbon lei-making classes in her garage from 10 a.m. to noon Fridays. The class is free and beginners are welcome, but you must register in advance by calling her at 262-2363 or emailing melelei2002@gmail.com. She will give you her address at that time. A potluck lunch follows.

Enos also can do workshops for school, community and senior-citizen groups. Call for more information.

Her book, “The Guide to Making Ribbon Lei” (Island Heritage Publishing, 2006), is out of print; however, you can borrow it at a public library or buy it on amazon.com.

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