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BY: Pat Schneider The Capital Times, January 29, 2002 Tuesday

Hmong story cloths are a splash of color at street markets in Madison, their intricately stitched figures marching across a fabric plain marked with crops and weaponry.

At once exotic and familiar, they use simple figures stitched in elegant detail to tell a story of war, migration and resettlement.

The textiles are part of a painstaking traditional craft fast losing ground to modern American jobs and pastimes.

"This is a thing that is becoming lost with the new generation," said Mai Yang, a Hmong woman who was born in Laos and came to the United States with her family as a child. "They take on Western culture and don't learn their own culture. This generation doesn't have the patience to do it."

Yang said she learned only the simplest embroidery from her mother, and did not master the elaborate stitches used on many story cloths.

In traditional Hmong culture, it was expected that a girl would learn needlework from her mother, said Yang, who works at Kajsiab House, a Dane County program for older Hmong immigrants.

"If you are a Hmong girl, you should not be lazy, you must learn, and when you are married, you do this with your daughter," Yang said.

Hmong textiles, decorated with embroidery and applique, traditionally used geometric patterns incorporating symbols from the culture's mythology, such as flowers believed to ward off evil spirits.

Pieces displaying those patterns are called flower cloths, or paj ntaub (pan dow), said May Vu, a social worker with the Mental Health Center of Dane County.

Needlework in Laos was used primarily to decorate clothing for such events as New Year, courtship and death. The clothing was rare because the women could spare little time from their work in the fields, said Vu.

The ethnic Hmong began fleeing their Laos homeland in 1976, when the Communist- backed Pathet Lao began slaughtering the Hmong for their aid to the United States during the Vietnam War. They swarmed by the thousands to refugee camps in Thailand.

There, women began embroidering story cloths, which depict Hmong life in Laos, the destruction of war, the flight across the Mekong River to Thailand and the journey to a new life in America.

A single stalk of corn representing agricultural life in the Laotian mountains might give way to a detailed rendering of a tank assault on a village, followed by a figure adrift in an inner tube.

"You can tell the Hmong story just by looking at the cloth," said Vu. "It lets people know that the Hmong have gone through tremendous hardship and struggle."

The need to tell their story, in a language unrestricted by culture, was one reason that Hmong women began making textiles with pictorial narrative, said Beverly Gordon, a professor of environment, textiles and design in the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison.

"In the refugee camps, they were in no-man's land. They needed to tell their story to someone who did not speak the same language," Gordon said.

That type of evolution in traditional crafts has occurred in other cultures, Gordon said. In Chile, the folk "arpillera" applique pictures began to tell stories of the "disappeared," political victims following the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973, she said.

In the Thailand refugee camps, producing the story cloths was often the sole source of income for Hmong families. The cloths were marketed to Westerners, often with the assistance of relief workers.

The cloths are high quality needlework, said Gail Marker, program manager at Yahara House and a needlecraft aficionada.

"They are just amazing," said Marker. "Some are very elaborate with just perfect stitches. It is incredible what skill that takes."

For many, the exacting work took its toll.

"Some women did so much in the camps, they want to rest," Yang said.

Participants in Vu's support group for Hmong women at the Mental Health Center spoke of learning paj ntaub as girls in Laos, where they did not attend school.

The story cloths produced in the refugee camps were a vital source of income to families who found themselves unable even to garden, the women said.

Choua Lee, 54, arrived in the United State four years ago. She said through an interpreter that she taught seven of her children to do the needlework.

But bending over the handwork caused her back problems, Lee said, and she does not do it here.

"I am sick of doing it now," Lee said.

In Madison, the Hmong women have found ways to put their sewing skills to practical purpose, like the quilts one group at Kajsiab House makes for the homeless as part of RSVP, Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.

Mari deMoya is the RSVP coordinator who works with the women. "Even though they themselves are economically disadvantaged, they have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of doing volunteer work for others," she said.

The women at Kajsiab House are one of 22 groups in Dane County that produced some 10,000 quilts and knitted goods for the poor last year, said deMoya.

Crossing the cultural barrier of language at Kajsaib, where some of the women speak very little English, has been both a challenge and a delight, she said.

"We communicate through the language of sewing," she said.

DeMoya, a third-generation Japanese-American, said she is sympathetic to the Hmong's efforts to adopt a new lifestyle.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for people in that situation, seeing their offspring grow up without tradition," she said.

The idea of sewing for others is new to the Hmong, said Yang. "People are real excited that other people need their help and are glad they are able to help other people," she said. "Some of them have needed help in the past."

Shoua Herr, a nurse at the Mental Health Center, sometimes privately sells cloths sent to her by Hmong women still in Thailand.

First produced as wall hangings, story cloths are incorporated into pillow cases and other items to make them more marketable. But the amount of time required to embroider the cloths, compared to what can be earned at even a low-paying job in the United States, make them a losing proposition for people living here, Herr said.

She said she recently sold a pair of small pillow cases for $40.

Gordon said it is not unusual for a traditional craft to lose its significance in a new culture.

"In the agrarian society, paj ntaub was very tied up in all kinds of traditions. The Hmong in America are in a very different situation," Gordon said. "The needlework doesn't fulfill the same needs."

The traditional craftwork survives as a part of festival dress, a common pattern in many cultures, she said.

"It becomes a way of looking at where you came from, not who you are now," Gordon said.

Yang has an outfit of traditionally decorated clothing made by her mother, but interest in even ceremonial dress is waning, she said. "Young people don't want to wear the clothes anymore. They are too heavy."

Yang, though, treasures her traditional dress, and says she will save it to show her own daughter a part of her culture. "It is something that I have, even if I don't know how to do it," she said. GRAPHIC: Photos by David Sandell/The Capital Times

Intricately stitched Hmong story cloths tell of war, migration and resettlement in the United States. Above and left: close-ups of local work. Below: Textile artist Mai Yang was born in Laos and came to the United States with her family as a child.

Above: Embroidered words tell of hunger and other struggles of Hmong people. Below: In a practical application of her skills, Pang Yang cuts fabric that will be fashioned into a quilt for local homeless people.

Pang Yang (left) and Mia Yang hold the cover of a patchwork quilt they made for homeless people.