Sunday, March 17, 2013

Meeting the H'Mong

    I recently visited a H’Mong market and purchased some incredible textiles. (If you missed those posts, you can stroll the market with me here:
and take a look at some the textiles I purchased here:

     So, for those of you who would like to know more about the people who make these textile treasures, I thought I would take a moment to share the H’Mong story.

    The H’Mong (pronounced “Mong” by most members) are an Asian ethnic group (or "hill tribe" as they are called here) originally from the mountainous regions of Southern China, Laos and Northern Vietnam.
Photo by Dane Phillips
     The H’mong did not have a written language until thirty-five years ago when Christian missionaries Romanized the H’mong language. Previously, all of their communication was oral and pictorial. Thus, their visual arts, mostly in the form of textiles, were an important method of cultural and individual expression.

    The embroidery cloth central to their artistic heritage is called “paj ntaub” (pronounced "pan dau") and literally translates as "flower cloth." The designs and patterns they produce are symbolic in H’Mong culture and are often derived from elements and shapes in nature.

     The garments are typically made by the women. Girls are taught in the home by mothers and grandmothers.

The process begins with harvesting and weaving the hemp or cotton,
indigo-stained hands separating hemp fibers
woman working on loom
breeding silkworms and spinning their silk,
silkworms feeding on leaves
silkworm cocoons which will be spun into silk thread
collecting beeswax for application in producing batik designs,
The batik designs are drawn on with wax.  Then the fabric is dyed with indigo up to 30 times until the desired shade is achieved.  Afterward, the wax is removed, revealing the patterns in undyed white.
applying indigo or other dyes,
dying fabric in barrels of indigo
indigo-dyed batik fabrics drying in the sun
indigo-stained hand
then sewing and embroidering the garments,

and finally embellishing them with tassels or small pompoms, beads, shells and/or sequins to produce a striking and colorful dress that is utilitarian, ecologically-kind and expressive.

     Traditionally, the women would dedicate their spare time for the better part of a year working on a single garment to be worn at the New Year festival (along with their best handcrafted silver jewelry, which is typically made by their male relatives.) The New Year (based on the Chinese lunar calendar) is their only major holiday and is celebrated with dancing, playing games, feasting and general merriment. It is also an important courtship event that results in many marriage engagements; thus, the young adults especially seek to look their best and catch the eye of a sweetheart. 

    After marriage, paj ntaub techniques are also used to decorate baby-carriers and husbands' collars.

    Today, the practice of embroidery or batik continues to be passed down through generations of H’Mong people, and paj ntaub styles remain important markers of Hmong ethnicity and heritage.

    Although the H’Mong of today generally recognize themselves as members of the same cultural group, they are not historically a homogeneous population. There are many subdivisions among the H’Mong, often distinguished by the dominant color or pattern of their clothing along with their headdress.  Major subgroups include the Black, Blue, Green, White, Red, Striped, and Flower H’Mong.
Flower H'Mong (aka Variegated H'Mong)
Black H'Mong
By Chandan of
Red Dao (aka Red Yao) H'Mong
by Chandan of

    Different patterns and techniques of production are associated with certain cultural subdivisions within the global H’Mong community. For example, White Hmong are typically associated with reverse appliqué while Blue Mong are more associated with batik.
reverse applique technique for textured effect
indigo batik

    During the last few decades, there has been a dispersal of H’Mong people from their homeland. When the Pathet Lao communist forces took control of Laos in 1975, many H’Mong people who still supported the Royal Lao Government rebelled and joined forces with the Americans (fighting in what is known as the Secret War in Laos) that coincided with the Vietnam War. When the Pathet Lao proved victorious, the H’Mong people were singled out for retribution. Tens of thousands of H'Mong people escaped into Thailand as part of a mass exodus of 300,000 refugees. Once in Thailand, most spent years in overcrowded refugee camps awaiting resettlement. Dependent on relief agencies for subsistence, many H’Mong people began selling handicrafts to improve their standard of living. Today their embroidery and batik skills are recognized globally, and their textile arts continue to play a role of increasing importance in maintaining their cultural heritage and personal livelihood. 

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