In this episode, Isabella discusses Hmong embroidery. She focuses most on Paj Ntaub ("flower cloth") and Hmong story cloths, discussing their materials, colours, imagery, and uses.
Images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website, sewwhatpodcast.com.
Whatsup stitches?! You’re back in the Sew What? zone – I’m happy you’re here! I’m Isabella Rosner and today we’re gonna get into Hmong embroidery, specificially Paj Ntaub, spelled P-A-J N-T-A-U-B, and story cloths. A quick shout out to my friend and fellow textile-y PhD student Emily Levick for asking me many months ago “when are you gonna do an episode about Hmong story cloths?” Well, here we are! As you can probably guess, Hmong story cloths are embroidered textiles that tell stories. They’re made by the Hmong people, who are an ethnic group who originated in Central China and who now live in the southern provinces of China, as well as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, eastern Myanmar, and a whole slew of other regions. I’ll get more into who the Hmong are and what they’re story cloths are all about in this episode, of course, but first, I gotta remind you about the Sew What? social media pages so you can see some good good Hmong Paj Ntaub and story cloths for yourself.
You can see images of the story cloths and a list of all the sources I used for this episode on the Sew What? social media pages on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Search @sewwhatpodcast and you’ll find it! The podcast also has a website with images, links, and other fun delights, which is at sewwhatpodcast.com.
Okay, now onto the reason why we’re all here today: Hmong Paj Ntaub and story cloths. I will start by giving you an overview of the Hmong and their migration before getting into Hmong textile traditions. Then I will get into Paj Ntaub and then Hmong story cloths, going through their materials, uses, imagery, and importance in today’s world. Cool? Cool. Let’s go.
The Hmong, and that’s spelled H-M-O-N-G, are an ethic group who speak their own language, also called Hmong. In the past few centuries, they have been persecuted a whole lot, which is very tragic. It is thought that the original home of the Hmong is in the Huang He, or Yellow River, basin of central China. In the eighteenth century, they were driven southward by the Han Chinese, an ethnic group that was expanding throughout the region. This led to armed conflict and biiiiig migrations from the 18th century or even late 17th century through the late 19th century. During the Qing dynasty, the Hmong were the subject of persecution and genocide. In the face of all this, the Hmong migrated to Southeast Asia, specifically to Laos and Vietnam. In the 20th century, the Hmong in Vietnam and Laos were farmers. What happened to the Hmong throughout Southeast Asia in the 1970s is a bit confusing, so I will keep it very simple here, probably at the cost of some parts of the Hmong’s story. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong fought against the Vietcong and Communist forces in Laos, with the support of the United States. When the US withdrew from Laos and Vietnam, the Hmong were forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in Thailand. It was actually there that Hmong story cloths began, but we’ll get into that a bit later. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong refugees resettled in the US. The biggest Hmong communities in the US are in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. As you can imagine, after a history of migration and resettlement, the Hmong diaspora is widespread. Here are some interesting numbers for you: according to Encyclopedia Britannica, there are 2.7 million Hmong still in China, 1.2 in the mountainous regions of northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and eastern Myanmar, more than 170,000 in the US, 15,000 in France, 2,000 in Australia, 1,5000 in French Guiana, 600 Canada, and 600 in Argentina. Fascinating! The more you know! Shout out to Encyclopedia Britannica for a great overview of the Hmong, which I’ve relied on heavily for this lil Hmong summary.
So now that we know who the Hmong are, we have to ask, what are their textile traditions? Hmong story cloths have to come from somewhere, right? Yes indeed-y. Can I say, before I get into this section, a HUGE shout out to hmongembroidery.org, which is the website result of a collaboration between the Hmong Cultural Center and the Hmong Archives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This site has SO much excellent, detailed info and I am much more informed about Hmong textiles because of that. Okay first, I’ll talk about Hmong textiles more generally and then I’ll get into the iconic paj ntaub and Hmong story cloth. When it comes to an overview of Hmong textiles, Wikipedia, my one true love, is the place to be.
Okay, first off, hemp cloth. Most traditional Hmong textiles were made with hand-spun hemp fabric. The hemp would’ve been grown by small family or community farming plots and were then processed by Hmong women. The hemp was then dried in the sun before it was stripped and separated into shorter lengths. Those shorter lengths were then hand-twisted into a longer length that was woven on a good ol’ wooden loom. Often, this hemp fabric would be the ground fabric for Hmong batik. Batik, for those of you who don’t know, is a resist-dyeing technique in which hot, toasty wax is applied to cloth to create a fun lil pattern. The cloth is then dyed (oftentimes indigo) and the wax is taken off. The waxy areas of the cloth resist the dye so what results is a dyed fabric with a pattern that is left undyed. Batik is a dyeing technique usually associated with Indonesia.
Hmong batik, which is called and apologies in advance for this, Paj Ntaub nraj ciab or cab in the Hmong language, involves white hemp fabric, beeswax, indigo dye, and a tjanting, which is a pen-like tool used to apply the scorching hot wax. Hmong designs are usually geometric in nature. Hmong batik is used to decorate things like skirts, baby carriers, and other decorative textiles. Now, I should say here that there are main groups amongst the Hmong in Southeast Asia. They are the White Hmong and Green/Blue Hmong. These two groups lived in separate villages, spoke different dialogues, rarely intermarried, had different forms of women’s dress, the list goes on. The names refer to the colours and patterns of each group’s traditional clothing, so so like white Hmong women historically usually wore a white pleated skirt. So batik is utilised by the Green and Blue Hmong, but not the White Hmong.
The Hmong also traditionally wove baskets, known as kawm in the Hmong language. These were used to transport farming goods or as general containers for stuff. They were made using bamboo and rattan and were woven by men rather than women. The dudes are basket weaving! Look at them go!
Okay, right, now onto Hmong embroidery. The Paj Ntaub or flower cloth is a traditional type of Hmong embroidery, stitched exclusively by the ladies. Paj Ntaub is an embroidered square that includes symbolic imagery related to family, nature, or folklore. A Paj Ntaub usually involves stitches like cross, chain, running, and satin, but also things like applique, reverse applique, and batik. What results are very stylised geometric motifs that vary between region and tribe. These symbols include a double shell snail, which represents marriage, and a rooster, which is a symbol of protection. These Paj Ntaub motifs decorate things like skirts, head dresses, shirt collars, sashes, baby carriers, funerary textiles, and a whole slew of other stuff.
I’m going to read a large amount of text from hmongembroidery.org, as it’s a really incredible overview of Paj Ntaub embroidery, it reads, “According to oral history in the Hmong community, it is said the Hmong women hid the ancient Hmong paj ntaub script in the clothing of the Hmong people, especially in the pleated skirts of the Green Hmong. From this time forward, the scripts became motifs or symbols in Hmong embroidery. Knowledge of the scripts was not so relevant in the lives of the Hmong and was eventually lost. […]
Traditionally, Hmong embroidery is used as a form of decoration on clothing to make it bright and beautiful. Hmong embroidery includes bright colors: pinks, reds, greens, as well as blues, and these are sometimes used to contrast with the colors of yellow and brown overlaid with white (Hassel, 1984). From a young age, Hmong girls learn how to sew and copy motifs from their mothers and grandmothers. As they grow older, the embroidery skills that the girls acquire through their female elders serve to make them more attractive marriage partners (Mallinson et al, 1988: 37).Girls with impressive embroidery skills are admired for their potential ability to sew beautiful clothes for their future husband and family members.
Furthermore, most girls sew their own clothes for the Hmong New Year’s celebration. They dress up in their best embroidery clothes to be seen in public with friends, and engage in courtship with boys through ball tossing and folk song singing activities. According to Shoua V. Xiong (2012), consultant of the Hmong Embroidery project, when a girl gets married, she is responsible for sewing clothes for everyday wear as well as new clothes prior to the Hmong New Year celebration for her family. On New Year’s Day, a Hmong family wears their new clothes to celebrate the festivities. This is supposed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity.
In addition, when a girl is married, her mother will give her a skirt, or several skirts, depending on her social status or how much wealth her family has. Traditionally, the mother makes the skirts by herself and provides them to her daughter as a dowry. When the daughter becomes old and dies, one of these skirts will be worn at her funeral (Mallinson et al. 1988: 33). In a related vein, a daughter is expected to prepare funeral garments called tsho tshaj sab for her parents as they grow old. These garments are made of hemp cloth, and put on the corpse of the parents when they die. In the spirit realm, the parents wear these hemp garments as they make the journey to meet their ancestors in the afterlife. Hmong clothes were originally made from hemp. Hemp is a very important plant, and the fibers of the hemp stalk are stripped, spun into fiber threads and woven into cloth. It is then bleached and dyed into black or indigo blue. Hemp cloth that is decorated with batik and appliqué work is common among the Green Hmong, and often turned into pleated skirts. The undecorated dyed cloth is sewn into jackets and pants. White Hmong do not decorate their skirts; they are bleached and turned into white pleated versions. The cloth is dyed black and used to sew jackets and pants. Sometimes embroidery motif needlework is used as a decoration on the cuffs and placket fronts of jackets with embroidery stitches, batik, appliqué or reverse appliqué along with embellishments.
Hmong embroidery has evolved to include Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western influences with the availability of different kinds of fabrics, threads, methods, techniques, and ideas. For instance, when the Hmong first arrived in the United States in the late 1970s, some of the families were initially resettled in Pennsylvania. While residing there, Hmong women learned a new style of appliqué techniques (quilting) from the Amish community [this is something Claire McRee mentioned in a previous Sew What? episode]. … The methods and techniques utilized for making Hmong clothes have changed over time. Items are not necessarily sewn by hand any longer. Cotton and synthetic fabrics are now preferred over hemp as the latter is heavy and difficult to find. Hemp is most commonly used for funeral garments in the contemporary era. Hmong motifs are copied, and replicated into machine-made patterns with Hmong designs and motifs. These copied patterns are made into pleated skirts, cuffs, and the placket fronts of jackets, as well as accessories. As the Hmong continue to live in the United States, their lifestyles have changed due to employment and educational opportunities. Hmong women don’t have the time to make embroidery as they once did in Laos. It is more convenient to purchase machine-made Hmong attire at the flea market or the supermarket. These items are relatively cheap and affordable. There are many new styles of Hmong attire, which do not resemble the regional Hmong clothes from the provinces of Laos. At the present time, many Hmong girls don’t have the time and/or opportunity to learn how to make paj ntaub as their elders once did. Many elders do not have time to teach these traditions to their grandchildren. For the reasons above, the Hmong art of making paj ntaub may be lost among future generations.”
My immense thanks go to Xai S. Lor of the Hmong Cultural Center who wrote this extremely informative and fascinating summary of Hmong embroidery. I apologise that a large part of this episode is me reading the writing of someone else, but the work that came out of the partnership between the Hmong Cultural Center and the Hmong Archives is written in a clearer, more succinct way than anything I could’ve written on the same subject. And now that we’ve learned so much about Paj Ntaub, it’s time to get into the Hmong story cloth.
As I mentioned earlier, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Hmong who stood against the Vietcong and Communist forces faced punishment and fled across the Mekong River to Thailand. These escapes were very harrowing and many didn’t survive the journey. In the refugee camps of Thailand, some Hmong women began to stitch two dimensional, embroidered pictures in order to relay their experiences and maintain connections to their homeland. These are the Hmong story cloths. It’s thought that the first story clothes were made by women at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in northeastern Thailand in the late 1970s. According to the trusty Wikipedia, “Scholarship has suggested several possible competing theories including the suggestion that refugee aid workers originally encouraged the idea of making embroidered pictures to sell, or that the story cloths developed organically out of exposure to English-language illustrated textbooks and Chinese pattern books, or that the story cloths were a means to remember and communicate traditions and experiences often relating directly to the Secret War and leaving Laos. Regardless, some level of western influence is clearly present in the form of English text and it is widely known that the story cloths were sold to international audiences, often with the help of missionaries and refugee aid workers.”
Hmong story cloths are often thought to be a form of Paj Ntaub but are different from them because story cloths include figures and fragments of text. Hmong story cloths, from what I’ve seen, are anything from like 1.5 feet by 1.5 feet to like 8 and a half feet long.
To make a story cloth, one first selects a ground fabric. A blue cotton blend seems to be the most popular choice. The artist then draws images onto the cloth which are then filled in with long satin stitches in a whole slew of thread colours. Other stitches are added to complement the satin stitches. The central narrative is then framed by a border, which is usually triangles which symbolise the protective highlands of Laos. Once the front is finished, muslin is sewn to the back of the ground fabric. And that’s how you make a Hmong story cloth! The cloths usually feature lots of little figures and animals and trees and other natural elements. What results is a detailed scene of human life, made miniature.
But what kinds of story are told on these story cloths? There are stories of living during war and migrating across the world. But there are also scenes from folklore and oral histories and even life on the farm. As Joshua Kueh writes about in a blog post called “Asia, Texts, and Textiles at the Library of Congress, Part II: Hmong Story Cloths” for the Library of Congress, there is a famous folktale that’s often found on story cloths. And that story is that of Nou Nplai and Yer, two newlyweds. Kueh writes, “In this story, Nou Nplai escorts his wife, Yer, part of the way to her parents’ home. Continuing on her own, Yer is kidnapped by a tiger who, being very taken with her beauty, keeps her for himself. Nou Nplai discovers what has happened when he arrives at his in-laws’ house and promptly sets off, sword in hand, to rescue Yer. He kills the tiger, and husband and wife are reunited.”
This is kind of an insane thing to say, but the vibrancy of and figural depictions in Hmong story cloths remind me of both Asafo flags from Ghana and arpilleras from Chile. I’ve talked about Asafo flags in a past Sew What? episode and will have an episode about arpilleras sometime soon. All three textiles, which from opposite corners of the world, are not only united by their visual similarities, but also in their origins in war and violent conflict. Hmm, much to think about. From darkness comes bright, rich embroidery.
Hmong story cloths are present across a lot of museums, especially regional museums in the US. The Wikipedia page about Hmong textile art summarises the use and significance of Hmong story cloths best, I think. It reads, “Although most story cloths seem to be created for international export and tourist consumption, many western scholars and young Hmong-Americans have found them to be highly valuable as teaching and learning devices and cultural artifacts. Today, Hmong story cloths often serve as a primary source that connects the diasporic Hmong community to its past, preserves and evolves traditional elements of Paj Ntaub, and helps raise global awareness to the experience and treatment of the Hmong during the Secret War and beyond.” I think that quote speaks so deeply to the power and importance of textiles as documents that we can learn from. Embroidery isn’t just a series of pretty stitches! It also is a commemoration, a diary, and an educational tool.
So yes, there you have it! There is Hmong embroidery, focusing on Paj Ntaub and Hmong story cloths. I hope you learned a lot! I definitely did as I undertook research for this lil ep. I think to conclude this episode I’ll talk about two themes I notice most when I look at a Hmong story cloth, community and movement. Story cloths are populated with many, maaany figures, usually, and they’re all in the midst of some action. They tell multiple stories at once, all on one surface, moving from scenes of war to crossing the Mekong River to going to the refugee camp, to flying away, and everything in between. People are walking, farming, bending, hunting, cooking, cross rivers, you name it. The scenes blend together. It’s like reading a picture book but you don’t need to turn the pages. You can’t help but feel like you’re witness to a sense of community when you view a Hmong story cloth – figures in different scenes become cohesive, become part of a larger story. And as your eyes track the narrative across the cloth, from a corner to another or diagonally across the fabric, you feel the movement of not only the story but also the Hmong people themselves. There are lots of types of embroidery that involve community production, many hands stitching together, but it’s not so often you SEE community in an embroidery in the way you do on a Hmong story cloth. And though anyone who embroiders knows that movement is very much a part of that art, an intricate dance of arms and fingers always moving, you don’t often see this much MOVEMENT on a piece of embroidery, either. Hmong embroidery brings these two really important parts of stitching, human connection and collaboration and bodily motion, to the surface. These things that usually go INTO the stitching come out of it on a Hmong story cloth. Do my ramblings make sense? I hope so. This is all to say that I think that on a Hmong story cloth, embroidered figures dance across a ground fabric like a stitcher’s fingers do. And in every stitch is so much life.
That’s all I’ve got for this episode. What a journey we have had! Thank you very much for listening and I’ll be back soon with another episode of Sew What?. There’s always more historical needlework goodness to explore and celebrate! Thanks for sticking around and I’ll see you soon.
Now go out and stitch some stories and wow your friends with your new Hmong textile knowledge. Bye!