Hmong Story Cloths Handstitched in Laos

While TAMMACHAT focuses on supporting rural weavers in Thailand and Laos, we couldn't resist the Hmong story cloths (called "Paj Ntaub Tib Neeg" in Hmong) on display in Luang Prabang, Laos. These colourful cloths showcase the traditional embroidery skills of Hmong women, often seen stitching in villages and markets, especially in northern Laos. The cloths we purchased depict life in Hmong villages and surrounding forests. Others tell stories of war and hardship.

We bought these story cloths from Ms Boonsong, a woman we met who comes from a small village about 60 km from Luang Prabang. The embroidery is particularly detailed and beautiful. Each carefully stitched piece, about 10" square, takes about 5 days to complete. They can be incorporated into larger quilt pieces or enjoyed as they are.

For a fascinating and lengthy discussion of Hmong stitchery, we recommend Geraldine Craig's recent investigation of Hmong textiles entitled, "Patterns of change: transitions in Hmong textile language" which was published in the Jan. 2010 edition of The Hmong Studies Journal. Ms Craig discusses the transition in Hmong needlework from abstract and symbolic geometric patterning to a "new pictorial embroidered textile language." Her paper concludes with a compelling list of references. The paper is freely available online.

The Cycles of Nature: When Black is Brown

Whenever we visit our weaving partners in Thailand and Laos, we’re struck by the cyclical nature of this work. There is a season for everything. Dye in rainy season and cool season. Weave in cool season. Rest in hot season. Begin again. And throughout, grow rice. Plant. Tend. Harvest.

For us too, there is a season. We spend 4 months here each year during weaving season. We make orders, choose textiles already woven, visit the dyers and weavers in their town shops and, sometimes, in their villages.

For the weavers, their constant is growing rice, the crop and food that underpins life in this part of the world. Our constant is learning – about the lives of these women, their techniques, their skills, their capacities, their interests in working together. And, always, we learn more about the effects of natural and its cycles.

An example: This year Panmai Group in Northeast Thailand told us that it’s a bumper year for ebony in their region. The fruits of this tall tree yield browns that, when dyed again and again, produce a deep, rich espresso black. Delighted with the news, we immediately placed an order with Panmai for a dozen ebony black scarves. In the process we learned that, unlike other colours, they dye only finished scarves with ebony as the dye makes the fine silk threads too sticky to handle in skeins.

We also ordered black scarves from Lao Sericulture Co., which works with hundreds of families in Northeast Laos. Their black is achieved using other dye materials available in their area. But black – in any region – is difficult to produce with natural dyes. It depends on both the skills of the dyer and, more unpredictably, the weather.

This year, when we saw our first samples in Laos, the “black” scarves were definitely brown – and a pale brown, at that. Tactfully, they offered to re-dye the organic silk yarns. We gratefully accepted their offer and hoped for a deeper, chocolate brown next time. Today, the second samples arrived: the colours are beautiful – one style a lovely chocolate brown and the other a deep espresso brown – so we eagerly await the completion of the order. Yes, these “blacks” are browns, but they’re beautiful and this is what nature offers us right now.

This is handwork that shows the hand of the maker. It also shows the hand of nature, yielding colours that can only be achieved by knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation, coupled with experimentation and trainings in methods that will improve colour fastness and colour depth, even new colours. There will always be variation.

What’s important to us at TAMMACHAT is that, whatever the result of our order, each piece is unique. Each respects nature. Each supports rural women. What could be better?