The value behind the threads

Hmong-Miao textile tradition

The popular handwoven indigo batik textiles that are a current trend in upscale western markets are in fact a treasure from the east, product from generations of skillful Hmong-Miao women who lived and keep living simple lives in the mountainous areas of Southwest China and northern parts of Southeast Asia.

The Hmong-Miao is an ethnic group whose ancestrals probably lived at the Yellow River's basin in present days China. With little historic evidences, their perception about their own history traces more than 3 thousand years and it is widely accepted that different clans have been migrating South since major conflicts with the Han Chinese empires.

Nowadays the biggest Hmong-Miao population is still living in China (more than 2 million people), but big groups are also settled in Vietnam, Lao and Thailand where they keep living in relatively traditional ways, close to nature and practicing ancient skills. Subsistence agriculture is the essential activity but fine craftsmanship has been strongly developed, specially an unique textile tradition among the women. Girls learn embroidery and sewing at as early as the age of six. In their society, a woman's talent on creating beautiful textiles and costumes is a lot more important than her beauty.

Rice fields near a Hmong village in Luang Namtha province, Laos

For the Hmong-Miao people, hemp is a favorite fiber for textile making and has been cultivated for centuries (or millenia). The plants often grow at the weavers garden or at nearby fields and are harvested by hand at the end of the rainy season. That is the beginning of a laborious process that will take few months to be completed: the artisanal manufacturing of an authentic Hmong-Miao pleated skirt, maybe the most symbolic piece of their textile tradition.

After harvesting, all the leaves and small branches are removed and the hemp stalks are left on the field under the sun until its completely dry. The fiber is removed from the stalks by hand, strip by strip and then pounded to remove the hard parts. Connecting the hemp strips to make a continuous thread is a long process also made by hand by the women at any spare time available. The fiber is spun on a wooden spinning wheel that twists and winds it in wooden spools. The thread is then mixed with ash and boiled several times until it turns white. In the final boiling, beeswax can be added to make the hemp smooth. A four-armed bamboo frame is used to stretch and organize the threads into skeins.

 

Traditionally, the weaving is made in a back strap loom. The width of the cloth is normally about 30 to 35cm (12 to 14 inches) and the lenght used for one skirt can be up to 6 meters! After several washes, the fabric is pressed between a stone and a log to make it smooth and flat.

As a signature of this textile tradition, the stunning Hmong-Miao batik is made using melted beeswax to draw patterns in the hemp fabric with a bamboo pen with metal nibs. When the entire piece of fabric is designed with wax it is dyed in indigo color, normally in a liquid originated from the fermentation of indigo leaves mixed with limestone powder. To achieve the desired color, the fabric is repeteadly dyed and washed for several days before it is boiled to release the beeswax and reveal the drawn patterns. After drying, the textile can be decorated with embroideries and appliqués and then pleated and sewn as a finished skirt according to the fashion of the family or clan.

The Hmong-Miao ethnicity is composed by several sub-groups with language and habits variations. The use of hemp fabrics is common among most of them but the way of ornamenting the textiles and costumes is a major diferentiation factor between groups and clans. The batik patterns used in their textiles often tell stories and are very connected to the identity of the clan, so are the kind of embroidery and even the color of the stitches and appliqués they use.

At OrientalBazar we recognize the value behind the threads with immense admiration and respect for the Hmong-Miao women and their culture. The amount of knowledge and energy needed to make a single skirt is beyond any reward that money can bring. Big appreciation inundates us every time we have a piece of their fabrics in our hands ready to turn it into a pillow case. We are proud to share these textiles with the modern world as a bridge for inspiration, ancestrality and beauty.

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