Bob Miyashiro left his native Hawaii more than 60 years ago, but the islands have always been close at heart.
Now retired after a long career as a swim coach at Santa Rosa Junior College, Miyashiro dedicates much of his time to the art and culture of Hawaiian feather craft and Hawaiian-theme quilting.
His work in both mediums is tedious and exacting, but with stunning results. Equally impressive is that he is self-taught in both pursuits.
“I always enjoyed seeing feather leis and hatbands but they’re very expensive. I said I could make it myself,” said Miyashiro, 81. Time-intensive, leis can run from $300 to $500 and hats from $400 to $1,200.
He pursued the art in the late 1990s, a few years before retiring after 34 years with the SRJC aquatics program. Today he is a master craftsman, with artists from Hawaii traveling to his home in Santa Rosa to see his feather work and study his techniques.
Miyashiro uses white duck feathers dyed in a rainbow of colors as well as natural feathers from other birds, their sheen adding brilliance to his work. He buys feathers in bulk, sometimes from a specialty company in Merced, sometimes securing bird pelts directly from hunters.
The ancient feather work is rooted in the days of Hawaiian chiefs and royalty; Miyashiro handcrafts not only feather leis (lei hulu) and hatbands (humu papa) but intricate helmets (mahiole) and royal staffs (kahili). He also makes feathered rattles (uli’ uli) used in hula dancing, and crafts ancient weapons from Hawaiian hardwoods and shark teeth.
The skills require great patience and attention to detail. Miyashiro often listens to the soothing sounds of Hawaiian music as he works, painstakingly using countless feathers to complete his pieces.
He typically trims and bundles a trio of feathers together and then ties and hand stitches them to a felt or yarn base about 2 to 2½ feet long. It can take him some 20 hours to make a lei, about 40 hours for hatbands.
Miyashiro can’t begin to estimate the number of feathers in each piece — thousands, he imagines.
He’s already used 12 pelts for one project that’s only half completed. The number of pelts can vary by bird, too. Miyashiro often works with feathers from multicolored Chinese golden pheasants, the more common ring-neck pheasants, peacocks and numerous other birds.
A prized piece, a shoulder-length feathered cape, was made completely with natural feathers, including the long hackles from roosters.
“In the sunlight, you can see all the colors come out,” Miyashiro said.
The cape, with star points representing rays of sunshine, took the artisan 2½ years to complete, with several hours per day dedicated to the project.
Miyashiro also creates award-winning quilts that feature Hawaiian flora and fruits and motifs rich in Hawaiian history, like the king’s and queen’s crowns in “Kapa Moi — The Royal Quilt” he spent nearly 18 months stitching.
“The whole thing, the whole thing is handmade,” he said of the vibrant red and gold cotton quilt designed by his friend Nalani Goard, a Hawaiian artist.
His most recent quilt, “Tropical Delight,” showcases a dozen squares with colorful cutouts of Hawaiian favorites like pineapple, plumeria, hibiscus and orchids.