The Hmong (pronounced ‘mung’) are an ancient tribe of mountain people who originated in Siberia, Tibet and Mongolia. Nomadic, they later migrated to China in the early nineteenth century in search of freedom and a land of their own. Shortly after, the Hmong then began to leave China and this migration increased in the 1860s because of the cultural discrimination they faced. The word Hmong, which means “man” in the Hmong language, is the name used by the Hmong people themselves. The Hmong are known in China as Miao and in Southeast Asia as Meo. Many Hmong dislike these terms, which they translate to mean “barbarian.” They then settled in the mountains of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam, raising crops and animals, and practicing “slash and burn” farming, the reason behind their need to move every ten years or so. During the Vietnam War, some Hmong began translating the name Hmong as “free man” to express their desire for political independence.
Fine needlework has always been a source of great pride to Hmong women. What we would think of as “fancy” clothes, they wore in everyday life- which is brightly colored embellishments, often on black hemp fabric. But today the custom has changed and traditional clothing is worn for celebrations including their New Year, marriages, births and other important events.
Cross stitch, needle weaving, indigo dyeing and batik are used to create these wearable works of art. The threads are even made from the hemp plant. After it is spun, its dipped into multiple colors of dye baths made by boiled flower petals (oooh la la) to get the colors desired.
The history of Hmong needlework involves both ancient traditions and more recent adaptations made during long years of survival in refugee camps. The skills needed for this traditional stitching are transmitted from mother to daughter, or from grandmother to granddaughter. Possibly the most difficult
of all their needlework techniques is the reverse appliqué stitchery called “Pa nDau” (pronounced pa dow) meaning flower cloth. Making one of these lovely appliquéd pieces is painstaking. It takes years of practice to develop the skills needed to do this intricate reverse appliqué. Often these pieces included other embroidery embellishment in addition to the appliqué.
Personally, I adore the intricacy of their textile skills. I fantasize about traveling through the hills of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, visiting the Hmong women and learning their techniques. Here are a few of my pieces:
The Hmong people’s ability to save their culture by their stitch traditions is inspiring. In their hands, cloth, needle, and thread take on a greater meaning and bring to mind the life they left behind. If you see any of these textiles, be reminded of the four thousand year tradition behind them and appreciate their cultural significance. Though lovely, they are more than just pretty things.