I find having nice textiles around the house makes life so much better. From a cozy rug that relaxes the feet, tablecloths that make mealtimes more enjoyable, to traditional handcrafted fabrics that add character to the walls. Textiles not only define our aesthetic, but they also connect us to different cultures. On one of my trips to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, I stumbled upon a unique story cloth made by Hmong women in a vintage store. The stories by the shop owner left me intrigued, and today I’d like to share some of its history with you.
Before the romanization of the Hmong dialect by missionaries in the 1950s, Hmong people passed on their traditions and cultures mainly through conversing, songs and textiles. Traditional textile handcrafts were taught and passed down through countless generations of women for over five thousand years. The techniques range from embroidery, applique, reverse applique, and batik. Ancient motifs and colors conveyed different genders, tribes, status, and religions of the people. The textiles were used to mark special stages in Hmong life like birth, marriage, and death.
The end of Secret War in 1975, led thousands of Hmong to flee Lao as their country fell to communist forces. To commemorate the hardship and traumatic experience of the war, Hmong women in refugee camps began embroidering their stories down onto woven cloths. The needlework is an artform that connects Hmong culture, history, and the people together. These depicted scenes were what they had witness during war. Some show Hmong journeying across Laos to cross the treacherous Mekong River. While others gave us a glimpse of the more peaceful, agricultural life before the war.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, it speaks an unmeasurable amount to Hmong people. The nature of the format forces us to fill in the gaps with our imagination and understanding of the secret war. What’s striking to me is how the Hmong people kept moving forward together, despite the danger. One can eminently feel their courage and resilience in every stitch. Their connectedness as a community is prominent even today.
Words by Buranee Soh