#8: Hmong Flower Cloths

Dec. 15, 2009

From Chiang Mai we headed north by bus to Chiang Rai province to meet with a group of White Hmong sewers. Our plan was to make an order for several dozen "pa'ndau" -- pronounced "pan-dow" and often translated as "flower cloth" -- a style of reverse applique that decorates many items used by traditional Hmong families.

Having no written language, Hmong rituals and artistry have been vital in keeping their unique culture alive. Extraordinary needlework has long been a large part of that culture; Hmong girls traditionally begin to learn the stitches for pa'ndau embroidery as young as 5 years old.

The last few years, we've bought many flower cloths through the Queen of Thailand’s SUPPORT Project -- a handicraft development program designed to boost farm families’ welfare, provide women with an important source of income and preserve cultural artistry. The SUPPORT Project was launched in conjunction with The Thai Royal Project Foundation initiated by the King of Thailand in 1969 to encourage hilltribe villagers to switch from the cultivation of opium poppies to alternative crops.

The flower cloths we've brought to Canada are often mounted on a piece of hemp about 12" square, as hemp has traditionally been retted and woven by Hmong women as well. The squares have been very popular at our events, especially with fibre artists. Last year we paired flower cloth squares with organic cotton from the Pattanarak Foundation to make cushion covers, which were just as popular.

Last year Ellen also set herself the task of finding a Hmong sewing group from which we could buy flower cloths directly to assure ourselves that the women were paid fairly for their work. Several dead-ends later, she found Patricia Solar of Izara Arts, who was able to put us in contact with a group of Hmong sewers.

With the help of Izara Arts' production manager Muay -- and her truck -- we travelled several hours into the "Golden Triangle" where Thailand meets Burma and Laos. Once we reached the White Hmong village, we also had the help of Kamonnit (the daughter of the head of the sewing group, Mai Li), whose job in the group is communications, sales and accounts. In addition to Hmong, Kamonnit is fluent and literate in Thai, and reads and writes enough English to use email.

A small crowd of us gathered around a rickety tin table in front of a tiny house -- Ellen and I, Muay and the mother of another Izara staff person, Mai Li, Kamonnit, the 5 older Hmong sewers and a passing neighbour. There we all were, almost blocking the street of the overgrown hamlet which was once a refugee settlement, speaking 3 languages while we poured over some samples we had brought with us. We learned from the sewers which elements of the designs were easier to sew, and which would take  more time and therefore cost more. We also learned that no one in the area made hemp fabric, which we had suspected might be the case.

As we talked, Mai Li quickly folded a piece of paper and cut into it the shapes of one of the samples we had brought: a paper pattern that these skilled sewers could transform into a finished flower cloth. So this is how they make them so symmetrical, we realized. Ellen and I were both reminded of making paper snowflakes as children.

With the sewers' input, we settled on 2 designs that could be fairly made within our budget. We chose 3 colour combinations for each design and explained their complex details to Kamonnit, who carefully wrote out the 6 variations. We would buy the hemp backing cloth in Chiang Mai, where it was more readily available; they would provide the coloured cloth for the designs, as well as the accent threads, which we selected from a large plastic bag filled with a tangle of dozens of coloured threads. For extra clarity, we stapled to each colour of cloth 2 corresponding thread colours, while the sewers nodded their approval of this communication technique.

We made a 50% cash deposit, our usual fair trade practice, and took banking information to transfer the final payment directly into the group's bank account, once the order was finished. We promised to email the address where they would send the finished pieces by bus so they could be transformed into cushion covers by the Pattanarak Foundation, a non-governmental organization working on Thailand's other border with Laos, also along the Mekong.

A new challenge will be to find handwoven hemp cloth in Laos, home to many Hmong and other ethnic minorities who still  live isolated rural lives in the upland areas of that mountainous country.

Alleson (Pii Plaa)