Unique Fabrics Tell the Story of a People

May 11, 2011 Updated: May 30, 2011

Hmong women pass down their people's history in unique and rich embroidery and thus preserve their cultural heritage despite the discrimination the Hmong people still face today. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Hmong women pass down their people's history in unique and rich embroidery and thus preserve their cultural heritage despite the discrimination the Hmong people still face today. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)
With its large quantities of multicolored fabrics and accessories, walking through the nighttime market in Luang Prabang—known as Laos’s sacred city—feels like stepping into a highly colored watercolor. Particularly eye-catching are the unique fabrics handmade by the Hmong people.

The Hmong’s historical origin is uncertain. The first evidence of their existence goes back to 2700 B.C. with descriptions of their life in China. Their legends and folklore point to probable origins in Mesopotamia. From there, they migrated progressively through Russia and Mongolia to mainland China.

Later the Hmong people had to move on toward South China’s mountain regions, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The Chinese call them “Miao,” a name given to people belonging to immigrant minorities. They call themselves “highlanders.”

In the 19th century, the Hmong settled in the mountainous region of Laos where they were farm workers—first for the Chinese, later for the French.

Artistic Talents

Despite their many migrations and the influences from the different countries that they were governed by, the Hmong always preserved their customs, culture, and art. They have performed the same songs and ceremonies down the ages, but they are particularly known for their artistic skillfulness. Hmong embroiderers would embroider traditional symbols carrying cosmological and religious meanings on each and every accessory and piece of clothing.

Today, Hmong women continue to master several techniques. One of them consists in overlapping pieces of fabric. They use geometrical designs, drawing from nature (for example, snails and elephants), mythology (dragon scales, labyrinths, stars), and objects used in daily life (fishing poles, wheels). Some patterns’ meaning is still unclear to today’s researchers.

Another technique is called “batik.” A cloth is weaved by the women, using a thread made out of plant fibers. Wax is then used to draw the desired shapes. Then they color the fabric with a dye prepared with the indigo plant. The last step in the process is to remove the wax: the patterns come out white on a background color of their choice. The technique is usually transmitted to the wife, after the wedding, by her mother-in-law.

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