Hmong Textiles and Costume of North Vietnam
This article was written by Valerie Kirk, a lecturer in textiles at the Australian National University in Canberra.
It is published here with her express permission.
The Hmong are the eighth largest minority group in Vietnam with a total population of about 600,000. They belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family and specifically the Hmong - Dao language group. They migrated from Southern China into North Vietnam over the last 250 to 300 years. They have mainly settled in the remote, mountainous areas of the North West, near the Lao and Chinese borders.
The Hmong minority group has been sub-divided into branches classified by women's costume, dialect, relationships and customs. The Hmong of Sa Pa are called " Black Hmong " or Hmong Den in Vietnamese, because of their predominantly black clothing, and they make up 52% of the population of the district. They inhabit the scenic foothills of Mount Fansipan, 1650 meters above sea level, an area which was occupied by the French, who developed Sa Pa as a health resort.
Hmong clothing is mainly made from locally grown Hemp, which has a physical structure and chemical composition similar to linen. Although hemp is one of the oldest known fibre crops, it has attracted a great deal of media attention in recent years. The debate today is based in the political and economic struggle of the wood pulp industry in the U.S.A. where a campaign against Marijuana, the Mexican slang term for the drug, was launched connecting use of the drug to violence and crime.
The beneficial properties of hemp have been rediscovered and farmers, manufacturers and consumers are campaigning to change the inappropriate laws that prohibit fibre hemp production in many countries. It can be grown and processed without the chemical treatments needed for other plant materials and gives three times as much raw fibre as cotton.
A low drug variety of the plant grows around Sa Pa and the local people laugh at the tourists who search out the Cannabis plants to smoke - it does nothing for them.
In Hmong society, the entire hemp process, from sowing the seeds through to weaving the cloth is clearly defined as women's work, along with digging and planting other crops in the fields, collecting firewood, cooking, looking after the family, carrying heavy loads to market and walking many kilometres back home.
The baste fibre is obtained from the stalk of the male plant which is about 1cm in diameter, and comes in lengths of 30 to 40 cm. They are cut and tied into bundles to dry in front of a fire or against fences and walls of houses. Once the stalks are thoroughly dry they are stored in the rafters of the houses till the women strip off the fibrous outer layer, known as baste fibre. These short pieces of fibre have to be joined to make a continuous length for weaving. Young through to very old women are involved in this activity and as the work is easily transported, they carry it with them, joining fibres as they walk to market or sit on the pavement in town. The material is wound in a figure eight ball held in the hand.
A substantial wooden loom with a bamboo reed is set up for the weaving process. The size of the reed dictates the width of the finished cloth which is usually about 30cm and the finished plain weave, measures eight to ten meters in length. It is woven in the natural hemp and can then be treated with wax for a batik design or dyed with Indigo.
The pattern for batik is drawn onto the cloth with a tool made by the Hmong blacksmiths which holds small amounts of bees wax. Unlike Indonesian batik, which is usually curvilinear, the Hmong patterns are made up of short, straight lines forming crosses, zig-zags and repeating motifs. The batik is produced in long lengths, dyed in a cold Indigo vat then the wax boiled off. This resist patterned fabric is made into jackets, baby carriers and skirts.
Indigo plants are cultivated in neat plots on the hillsides near the houses. The plant grows to about 60 cm high and can yield 2 crops each year. The dye is contained in the leaves which when allowed to ferment and then oxidise produce a blue powder that is insoluble in water. This can be stored as a paste or powder. There are various ways of preparing the Indigo vat with substances that make the Indigo soluble. The urine of children, particularly boys is a common additive as well as lye, lime and rice wine. When the dye bath is bubbling strongly it is ready to use. The fabric is emersed in the dye vat and worked for about half an hour then hung up to oxidise into the distinct blue colour. Subsequent dippings and oxidations will darken the colour and the black of the Hmong fabrics is achieved by repeating the process twice a day, each day for a month.
"Beetling" or " Calendering " is a finishing process which flattens the threads and fills in the spaces between warp and weft. The cloth becomes finer, smoother, softer and more lustrous - almost with a metallic sheen. The women use a well worn, rounded, log which sits flat on the ground and a flat , long shaped rock which sits on top. Maybe the rock I saw being used was petrified wood as the woman I was with indicated it was the same as the wood.
The fabric is placed over the wood and the rock, treated with beeswax, placed on top. The woman balances on top of the rock with her feet apart and moves side to side in a see saw action back and forward. At the same time the cloth moves to the left of the wood so that the length can be worked in a continuous process.
The log and rock are considered to be a couple - the wood representing female and the stone the male. If either object breaks this is said to symbolise divorce and a woman's husband is free to choose another wife. Before knowing this superstition I was having a go at calendering the fabric, encouraged by the Hmong woman I was with, but I had this terrible fear of breaking the stone, a heavy Westerner with all my weight on a thin rock. I thought at the time it must be because the stone seemed so old and well worn. What would the women do if I broke the rock? But maybe subconsciously I had picked up on the significance of the objects.
The Hmong women are known for their embroidery and fit this work between other daily chores. The main stitches used here are chain stitch and cross stitch. These are often used in combination with applique, where small pieces of fabric are stitched onto a backing cloth, edges sewn under, to make a coloured pattern. Reverse applique, where the top fabric is cut away to make a pattern of the backing cloth is also worked by the White Hmong. Both the embroidery and the applique can be extremely fine, although some work now uses thicker threads and is less detailed. In the market women are interested in each other's work and the finest work is well appreciated.
The main seams of garments are sewn by treadle machine, sometimes carried on someone's back many kilometres from the town. A decorative running stitch is used to top stitch the edges of the jackets and waistcoats. Here a pair of leggings are being made of triangular strips of cloth. They are wrapped around the calves and tied in place with commercial braids.
The everyday clothing of men, women and children is almost entirely the darkest blue hemp with both male and female wearing trousers - usually full length on men and knee length on women. Children wear exact scaled down versions of adult clothing. The men pictured are part of a road works gang upgrading the road to Dien Bien Phu. They wear long waistcoats like the example in the exhibition " Migrants from the Mountains ". The collar is the only area of decoration worn by men every day. It sits discretely at the back of the neck on the long, polished hemp waistcoat.
The older collars tend to be finer in the work and more subdued in colour, whereas some of the new collars are extremely bright with vivid green thread and may be coarser in the embroidery. Women wear layers of hemp clothing tied at the waist with a belt. They have a simple headdress made of woven plant material wound with a long strip of Indigo hemp. Some women wear no headdress but have their hair neatly wound in a roll around their head, held in place with combs. Everyone wears the same style of practical, brown plastic sandals.
On my last trip to Sapa, a woman I had previously met, asked me to visit her house at Lao Chai village, about four hours walk from the town. A Russian jeep part way along the track helped shorten the journey, then a steep descent on pure mud slopes to the river and a short walk across fields to the settlement. Everyone was there waiting for us. We went to a house where they had collected together the best of textiles from friends and family to show us. Two of the women dressed in their ceremonial clothes - heavily embroidered jackets with shining hemp waistcoats on top, wrapped tightly at the waist with a belt embroidered at both ends. The pleated, embroidered and appliqued skirt commonly worn by other Hmong groups was worn, plus elaborate silver jewellery. There are no aprons, common to other Hmong costumes, but the long waistcoat panels at front and back have a similar effect. They looked spectacular. The raised work of the embroidery and applique gives an encrusted or low relief quality. The yellow-green embroidery is a less common style with solid weave stitch making the pattern.
All Black Hmong people wear elaborate jewellery made of silver (sometimes from old French coins) or alloys. It has spiritual significance, keeping the soul with the body and helping to ward off evil spirits. Babies are given a simple metal band with a little bell on it, men and women wear neck rings with or without chains and women have large, decorative, earrings. A jeweller works near Sa Pa demonstrating his craft to passers by, beating the metal and engraving patterns from the natural world. Other modern day objects have been incorporated into jewellery - silver safety pins are common, Catholic crosses and occasional badges and trinkets from tourists are worn with pleasure.
Children are encouraged to go to school , which is free, but in 1994 only 3% of minority children in the Sa Pa area attended school. Parents are reluctant to send children, needing them to work at home or look after the younger brothers and sisters. They also worry that they will become, " Vietnamesed ", losing their language and culture. At the minority school the Black Hmong children always wear their own distinct clothing and other children have their costume for special occasions.
Umbrellas are commonly used for protection from rain and sun, but sun hats are also used like this woven and painted version of the conical hat.
Well worn clothing is freshened up by another dip in the dye bath and the totally worn out clothing is suspended on bamboo poles, high above the crops as bird scarers.
Tourists have been able to visit Sa Pa for 4 years and already Western culture and tourism is changing the production and use of textiles . Worn clothing is now dyed in bright chemical colours and remade into shirts, jackets, hats and shorts to sell. Old collars are taken from waistcoats and sewn together to make shoulder bags and girls embroider small bags for tourists.
After a weekend in Sa Pa every visitor wears something Hmong. The women are enterprising and carry large baskets of textiles around the market, engaging with tourists in friendly barter. But, how long can they keep up the production for a rapidly growing market and still clothe themselves with hand-made textiles? Will the quality of work continue? In an area of difficult terrain with floods and landslides producing enough food for subsistence is difficult. Only one rice crop per year can be grown and at the most this will last for four to eight months of the year.
Additional income can provide food and western health care, fresh water supply and hydro-electric power. Making and selling textiles brings an income to families who might otherwise rely on government handouts of rice. I also hope the interest of discerning visitors will help conserve the textile heritage and confirm the pride of the women in their work.
Bac Ha Valley
Bac Ha is a in a fertile valley near the Chinese border. In this area there are 10 minority groups and the Flower Hmong make up 65% of the population. People travel long distances into town from the surrounding area, often using pack horses to carry goods to and from market. The blacksmiths wear typical male clothing - plain black trousers, waistcoats and jackets, with many styles of hats and some green military style clothing, which is cheap and available in the market. The women stand out in their bright colours and full skirts which sway seductively as they walk.
The area is rich and prosperous through the cultivation of stone fruits and the changes from a commune system to individual land ownership. The people say they have become wealthy and for textiles this means that no-one weaves anymore or works batik on cloth. Everything can be purchased in the market. Skirts for sale are made of a printed cloth replicating the indigo batik. They have no pleating, but are gathered like a dirndl skirt and the elaborate embroidery and applique traditionally in a deep band around the hem has been replaced with pieced velvet and floral fabric.
Aprons and collars are decorated with machine embroidery in bright designs. Hems of skirts have combinations of hand and machine embroidery, pieced work and applied commercial braids. The young women like the sparkling, pink, green, yellow beads dangling in strands. They buy them by the appropriate length and apply to the blouse. Their dress is the most vibrant and spectacular. All the women wear the commercially woven checked scarf over a fibre, shaped, form, or just over their hair.
Babies are carried by women, sometimes older children and occasionally men in comfortable cloth baby carriers. They are functional items, securing, reassuring and protecting. The baby becomes an extension of the person carrying it and travels up the mountain paths, out to the fields or down to market. The styles vary greatly, but usually blend in with the mother's clothes. They are usually decorative with patterns worked in embroidery, batik or applique which can offer symbolic protection against evil spirits. Often the only part of the baby that can be seen is the top of the head and this is covered with a special hat of auspicious symbols. The bright fabrics, threads and coins on the hats are said to confuse evil spirits who mistake the heads for flowers.
The blouses are made of heavy satin, velvet or synthetic, patterned velour with machine embroidery and commercial braids around the neck and sleeves. Even in 40 degrees heat women still wear these thick garments. Historically the Hmong came from extremely cold climates to the north, but it is surprising that adaptations to cooler materials and thinner fabric constructions have not been made. Baskets are another practical item made by the Hmong, mainly by men for use by women. They are
large and strong, woven from natural plant materials, sometimes with horse hair or leather straps.
In the fields and working at home women wear the same style of dress. - more worn and faded than their best. Skirts are washed or hung up to air in the open and for storage they are rolled vertically and tied at the waistband by the straps to hang up in the house. Textile production is no longer such a large part of women’s lives here, but the Hmong style has been retained. Work for financial gain has taken over, growing plums and nectarines and tending animals, but the division of labour seems to continue, women still work harder and longer hours and women walk back home up the mountain paths after a day at market while men, with a few glasses of rice wine, too many, ride home on the horse. The costume of the Flower Hmong is an outward display of strong cultural identity and pride in tradition. The modern day adaptations have allowed a style or look to continue through changing economics and social expectations. The looms and batik tools have gone, but the prosperous Hmong of Bac Ha, reflect a contemporary world of electric colour and synthetic fabric, vibrant combinations they have creatively made their own.