HMONG STORY CLOTHS A FADING ART;
NOW, WOMEN ALSO USE SEWING SKILLS FOR OTHERS
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
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
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
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,"
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.