Textiles have long been used by various cultures and ethnic groups to convey socio-cultural and religious messages, which in turn can also reflect the community’s identity. Hmong embroidered clothing and textiles are a rich resource not just for understanding the rich culture of the Hmong people but for textile knowledge generally and traditional needlework techniques.
Traditional Hmong clothing is distinctive in its highly embellished needlework known as paj ntaub or flower cloth. Practiced mostly by women, paj ntaub shares the Hmong people’s profound histories, legends, and traditions in a skillfully rendered and visually attractive vocabulary accessible to people of other cultures.
Linda Gerdner’s Hmong Reverse Appliqué: Cultural Meaning and Significance provides a detailed exploration on the historical significance of Hmong reverse appliqué and circumstances that led to the development of the unique textile art form. Made by members of two Laotian Hmong sub-groups, the White Hmong and Striped Hmong (named after their distinct styles of clothing), reverse appliqué is a complex form of needlework traditionally used to decorate Hmong clothing that “serves as a form of group and social identification.” This technique is essential for sewing the indispensable paj ntaub in traditional clothing.
Hmong appliqué has been employed to sew stylized motifs of geometric or curved forms of various symbolic meaning on paj ntaub. For example, a snail shell may represent family growth, with generations spiralling out from ancestors at the center. A double snail-shell design may symbolize two families lined in marriage. Another type of paj ntaub called “story cloth” can be traced back to the refugee camps in Thailand. The appliqué techniques have also been used on wall hangings that depict folk tales, recall village life, or real-life journeys such as escaping from Laos, crossing the Mekong River or living in refugee camps. The destruction of Hmong villages, the trek through a mountainous jungle, and the harrowing crossing of the Mekong River to sanctuary in Thailand encapsulate the experience of thousands of Laotian Hmong during the Second Indochinese War. The rich tradition of storytelling through embroidered cloth allows Hmong elders to communicate history, tradition and folklore to both a wider international audience and with younger generations of Hmong raised in the United States. All Hmong textile art uses symbols to tell stories, many taking a month or more to complete.
Many of the photographed examples in the book were made when Laos Hmong people were displaced to refugee camps in Thailand due to the Vietnam War. During this time, Hmong women expanded their needlework skills in reverse appliqué to form a new textile art that involved the creation of abstract, geometric designs based on culturally significant symbols and motifs. The second chapter of the book interestingly highlights the various aspects of the Hmong family life, including courtship, love and marriage. The Hmong New Year was traditionally the ideal time for young people to begin seriously exploring prospects for a life partner. Custom dictates that women in particular should wear new hand-sewn traditional costumes during Hmong New Year celebrations. As a reflection of family wealth, attire and accessories were also adorned with coins from French Indochina. In addition, ornate silver necklaces were worn by both males and females. Female New Year attire included hand-sewn coin purses worn in pairs around the waist. Coins were individually sewn on the sides and bottom of each purse. Similar purses were also worn by the bride during a traditional wedding ceremony. Reverse appliqué motifs are in close proximity to one another with meticulously embroidery adorning areas of overlying fabric.
Until recently, almost all Hmong lived in the mountains of southern China, Laos, Thailand, and northern Vietnam. After the royal Laotian government was overthrown by Communist forces in 1975, numerous Laotian Hmong were killed, another third fled to Thailand, and the remaining third stayed in Laos. Many of those who took refuge in Thailand eventually found homes in the United States, France or Australia.
In the past, the majority of Hmong people living in Laos maintained an oral tradition. Gerdner writes that the Hmong people believed the development of a writing system, either borrowed or adopted by persons outside of their culture, was not an adequate representation of the crucial expression of ethnic identity and resisted these efforts. Another version of the Hmong legend explained that at one point in history, the Chinese forbade either speaking or writing the Hmong language. Consequently, Hmong women used their exceptional skills in needlework to develop paj ntaub, a pictorial language which they thought could effectively communicate messages as well as incorporate into their family’s clothing items.
Gerdner quotes the textile writer Geraldine Craig: “Hmong textiles were and are a primary agent of culture, language and identity.” As the Hmong diaspora spreads around the world, , this book serves to document the history, practice, iconography, and significance of the folk art deeply embedded in past Hmong experience. These embroidered story cloths which testify the past experiences and exodus of Hmong are key narratives that enact concepts of historicity and intercultural communication. In particular, paj ntaub preserves the memory and knowledge of an art form integral to an immigrant group now woven into various western cultural fabrics.