Even on the greyest days, Hmong women can be spotted from afar working along the cascading rice terraces in northern Vietnam. By adorning themselves from head to toe in vivid textiles, they create a brilliant contrast against the stark grey of northern Vietnamese winters. A closer look at their clothing reveals extremely complex patterns. Their clothing is both dazzling and fashionable, however these clothes are much more than just cosmetic in Hmong culture.
In my time spent in Vietnam, I have invested a large amount of time learning about the Hmong and their textiles. On a motorbike tour through Ha Giang province, I visited the Hop Tien Linen Co-operative in Lung Tam, where I learned about the process of transforming hemp straw into a wearable piece of cloth. But this is only a small part of the process that goes into making their traditional clothing. The cloth created from the raw materials found in the nature that surrounds their homes serves as a canvas for intricate patterns to be embroidered into the fabric. This is the most time consuming part of the process of creating Hmong traditional clothes.
In Sapa Village in Lao Cai province, I had the pleasure of spending time with Lan, a local woman of the Black Hmong tribe, who runs a small family business called Hemp and Embroidery, that creates items from recycled materials from the clothing of various local ethnic tribes (please refer to below this article for more information on where you can find Hemp and Embroidery). Lan patiently endured my multiple visits and never-ending list of questions about the meanings of the different patterns found on Hmong clothing.
Lan explained to me that the patterns embroidered into the material are images of the nature and objects that surround them in their everyday life, each of which carries its own meaning. Traditionally, the Hmong spend a large amount of their time outdoors, which is why most of the symbols are representations of different elements found in nature. Popular sequences include snails (a representation of the people in the community), pumpkin seeds (food that they eat), stars (a light that allows them to see in the night), mountains (that surround their homes), fire (for warmth and cooking), flowers (which are found around their homes) and chicken feet (food that they eat). By combining the sequences of these individual elements, stories are created that tell of their traditional way of life.
Lan continued to explain just how important it is for a Hmong woman to know how to weave and embroider. The complexity of the stitching is closely linked to a Hmong woman’s identity and because it is traditionally the responsibility of the woman to make all of the clothing for her family, it is a way for a women to demonstrate her skills to a potential marital partner. The style of embroidery on a Hmong woman’s clothes identifies which Hmong tribe she is apart of (Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, Green Hmong…) which is also attached to where she lives. In general, knowing how to embroider well is a huge point of respect in Hmong culture. For this reason, Hmong girls learn to weave and embroider from a very young age, under the close guidance of their mothers and grandmothers.
Embroidering is extremely time consuming… believe me, I tried it. When I found out that Lan offered embroidery classes from her shop, I was quick to jump on this opportunity. Having a reasonable amount of experience with sewing, I marched down to my lesson feeling confident and excited to prove myself as a natural embroiderer. Before my sewing class had started, I had envisioned coming out with a long sequence that I could make into a headband or some other extravagance. This was not this case and it was a hard lesson of expectation versus reality. After four tedious hours of Lan teaching me the most basic pattern, I was able to create a thin sequence about about the length of my pinky finger (see image below). On more than one occasion I would make a mistake and Lan would take my beginner’s cloth and patiently correct my mess of stitches. In short, it was extremely humbling to see how much time is put into every stitch.
The skirts of Hmong women are particularly complicated, often with every inch of the cloth being embroidered. This is why is usually takes women over a year to complete their skirts alone. After having embroidered my measly little line, this length of time was much less shocking to me.
Spending time with Hmong women and learning about how the create their clothing was an eye-opening experience. We have been taught in the west that clothing is disposable, with many of us will cycling through new clothes with every passing season, disposing of what is considered “unfashionable”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Hmong women will dedicate years of her life to creating one outfit that she will wear proudly for many years of her life. What an absolute contrast that has forever changed the way that I will look at my own clothes.
Are you traveling to Sapa Vietnam? Visit Hemp & Embroidery!
This store is the perfect place to get an authentic souvenir from Sapa! It is run locally by Lan and Dao of the Lor family from the Black Hmong tribe. All items are high quality and are handmade (not in China like many of the shops) using recycled fabrics from various ethnic tribes around the province. This is not a bargaining shop. Each item has a price tag, and the prices are reasonable and fair for the work that goes into creating them. The shop also offers batik workshops and embroidery classes. I highly recommend this shop to anyone that is visiting Sapa and looking to buy an authentic souvenir! (address found on the photo below)
(*This article was not sponsored by Hemp & Embroidery, I am recommending it because it is locally owned by a Hmong family, it is honest and because of my personal experience with Lan, who is a very kind woman)