The Hmong are an ethnic group from China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Before our travels to SE Asia, the Hmong were one of the few SE Asian ethnic groups with which I was already familiar as there are many Hmong refugees in the United States (and other western countries like France and Germany). The Hmong were recruited by the American government to fight during the Vietnam War and have faced much persecution in several SE Asian countries since. (You may have heard of the Hmong from a 1998 book called The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down which recounted the story of a young Hmong girl with epilepsy in California and the cultural gap between her family and her doctors, both of whom were doing their best to help the girl, often to counter purposes.)
Traditionally, every Hmong household would produce its own textiles with girls learning to embroider, appliqué, indigo dye, and batik at a young age. A woman’s clothing would be the only thing she would take with her when she married and moved away from her home village. Therefore it was an important part of her identity, showing her ethnicity (there are many Hmong subgroups) as well as her creativity and diligence.
Hmong women weave hemp into a sturdy textile. They use a wax resist technique and indigo dye to create their beautiful blue and white geometric textile art. When I was at Ock Pop Tok, I got to watch the only Hmong woman that does indigo wax resist dying in Luang Prabang work for a while.
She dipped a little metal stylus into a pot of hot wax and used it to draw slowly and deliberately onto the hemp. Very regularly, she would put the little pot back on the coal to keep it at just the right temperature.
After the entire strip of fabric is designed with wax, it will be dyed with indigo several times to produce a deep blue color. The wax is then boiled away and the finished textile remains. According to a folk tale, at a point in time the Hmong were not allowed to have a written language so the women hid letters in their textiles. There is much symbology remaining in the designs used on the wax resist (and appliqué and embroidery) such as a snail pattern symbolizing family and an elephant’s footprint signifying prosperity.
To make traditional skirts, the fabric is folded into accordion pleats, stitched tightly in place and stored, often with wood to compress the fabric, to set the pleats. The skirts use up to 6 meters of pleated fabric which makes for quite a heavy skirt. The red decorating the skirt is strips of fabric that are appliquéd on by hand and the bottom of the skirt has appliqué and embroidery. Traditionally, a Hmong woman would make a new skirt every year for the Hmong new year festivities.
While some woman still practice traditional hemp indigo dying techniques, modern Hmong women often turn to printed fabrics of cotton and polyester, making it easier and cheaper for them to have traditional style skirts. Additionally, the hemp skirts that are made are often turned into bedspreads (since they are very sturdy and only worn for a year) for the tourist market, allowing women to continue to practice their traditional techniques and ways of celebratory dress, but also have it serve as a source of income. At the Luang Prabang night market, I had the pleasure of buying one such bedspread from a lovely Hmong woman selling the work of women from rural areas outside of Luang Prabang.