Documenting the history of a people

How does one record the history of their people – the tragedies, heartache, and tales of love and war when they have no written language?

In her poem Cipher Song, Mai Der Vang, 2016 winner of the prestigious Walt Whitman poetry award, perfectly captures the significance of Hmong embroidery and the role it has played, for hundreds of years, in the documentation and telling of Hmong history.

Cipher Song

It’s come to this. We hide the stories

on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping

babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our

bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands

a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint

of an elephant. Snail’s shell. Ram’s horn.

When the words burn, all that’s left is ash.

(as cited in The Fresno Bee)

To learn about the Hmong story and read more of Vang’s work, check out her op-ed piece for The New York Times Heirs of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos.

Vang lives in Fresno, California and teaches English at Clovis Community College. Look for her book of poetry, Afterland, to be released in April 2017 by Graywolf Press.

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2015 Sacramento Hmong New Year

Dressed to impress, both young and old came out in droves at this year’s Sacramento Hmong New Year (SHNY).

I haven’t been to SHNY in years, so it was exciting to share the experience with my kiddos. We arrived around 10:30 a.m., but took forever getting dressed in the CalExpo Fairgrounds parking lot on Saturday. If you walked by a very loud group of people trying to get dressed in their finest Hmong clothes on Saturday, that was probably me and my family! My poor mom had to contend with dressing six of us, then herself, while we juggled my adorable two-month old niece in the freezing cold. It was hectic, but it reminded me of days gone by when my parents would drive my sisters and I to Hmong New Year after New Year starting in Chico and working our way down Northern California into the San Joaquin Central Valley and ending in Fresno.

Hmong New Year never ceases to amaze me. This year, there were many who came dressed in traditional garb (which I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE), but there were just as many who chose to come in more modern Hmong-inspired designs. I ended up taking tons of pictures and want to thank everyone who graciously let some stranger (me) interrupt their conversations and ball tossing so that I could snap their photo.

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There were so many beautifully dressed men and women, but my pick of the day was this young woman in the black head wrap (second from the left). I was very excited when I saw her. She wore her Hmong clothes beautifully and was a stand out for me because you just don’t see women dressed in this traditional style with this head wrap anymore. It’s rare to find a Hmong woman wearing a headpiece that she wrapped herself or was wrapped by another for her. Now-a-days, many headpieces have been made into hats, one entire piece you just pop on your head. So, to find an authentic head wrap is pretty cool – but to find one in this style was truly amazing.

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Her entire outfit was just lovely. I loved the plain black fabric used for her shirt and sev. Her traditional silver necklace and sash with the many rows of silver coins left me reminiscent of my youth. For me, all other outfits paled in comparison to this very understated one. Her bright and authentic Hmong skirt was a stand out against her black sev. She and her friends looked beautiful and like they were having fun tossing ball when I rudely interrupted them for a picture. Thank you for not turning me away!

Oh, and please excuse my daughter for photo bombing this lovely picture. She and my sister teased me horrendously for being what they called a “creeper,” just walking up to strangers and asking if I could take their picture. Obviously that would be inappropriate under normal circumstances, but Hmong New Year is different! Everyone takes photos of everyone else, it’s the thing to do, other than making new friends, eating some really good food, tossing ball, shopping all the vendors, and reuniting with friends and family of course. I thought about photoshopping her out, but let this be a lesson in photo bombing, if you do it, I will leave you in the picture.

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Above: I loved the head pieces on these two ladies, but my favorite was how simple they kept it. In my day, women wore a lot of silver, which is no longer the case. Today, many wear just their silver necklace and one sash around the waist with only one or two rows of silver coins. As you can see, one of these beautiful ladies (right) chose to go without a silver necklace, which is very flattering with her Hmong outfit.

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Above: These ladies looked amazing in their Hmong-inspired outfits. I’m a sucker for a really good coordinated group outfit. I’ve seen a lot of interest online in this specific and another similar design. Going with black fabric, instead of a patterned fabric, for the shirt and pairing it with a black skirt really pulls your attention to the embroidery on the arms and sev. The lightweight silver necklaces align with the simplicity and overall fashion-forward look of the outfits. The middle outfit is gorgeous. I love the red, orange, and yellow embroidery on the shirt and sev. The pattern is bold and stands out even from a distance.

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Above: There were a lot of men dressed in Hmong clothes too. This couple was very stylish. The man is dressed in traditional Hmong-Thai clothes. A tell-tale sign of Hmong Thai-clothes men clothes is the short shirt. You’ll notice that it is embroidered starting below the neck of the front opening of the shirt, and the embroidered pattern runs along the entire bottom of the shirt and ends at the opening of the opposite side of the shirt. Hmong-Thai men also where the beautiful pink embroidery sash and the baggier (harem style) pants. The lady in this photo is dressed fairly similar to the photo directly above this one. She wears a black skirt and a sev with a similar embroidered pattern, however her head-piece, the opening of the shirt, and her silver necklace are different.

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Above: I loved this outfit, but couldn’t get close enough to get a close up as she was surrounded by suitors! From a distance, the red looks like it may be velvet, but that is only a guess. I think that everyone that came across this woman did a double-take. Her headpiece was very impressive and her outfit is similar to those worn by ethnic Hmong in southwest China.

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Above: I took this photo to show the many different outfits from behind. Take note of the different head pieces, sashes, belts, and skirts these ladies are wearing. Look at how the women wear their hair based on the head-piece they’re wearing. I also wanted to point out that hair matters, and doesn’t depend on whether you wear a head-piece, but rather on the style of Hmong clothes you are wearing. As you’ll notice, some have braided their hair down the back, or have partially exposed hair, while others have it tucked up into their head-piece.

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Above: I saw these two lovelies from afar and had to make a run for it in my Hmong clothes and heels to catch up with them! This style is similar to the photo above with the lady wearing the red velvet-like outfit. I would say these outfits, including the headpiece and silver, are inspired by the ethnic Hmong of southwest China. Again, I love coordinated outfits and these two looked amazing.

We had a great time at SHNY and hope you did too. If you’re planning on going to Merced and Fresno Hmong New Years, I will see you there with camera in-hand!

When we were children

Top from left: me & my big sis. Bottom from left: my cousin & my little sis (she is wearing the Hmong skirt featured in this post).

Top from left: me & my big sis. Bottom from left: my cousin & my little sis (she is wearing the Hmong skirt featured in this post).

I don’t have any memories of wearing this little skirt, but I know I did. I know, because I have photos of me and my sisters wearing it as as children. We must have worn it a lot because the skirt is so worn and frayed.

Does anyone make little Hmong skirts like this for their baby girls anymore? I hope so.

Child's Hmong skirt.

Child’s Hmong skirt.

This skirt, along with another, has been sitting in my suitcase of Hmong clothes for decades. It’s lost all the life I imagine it once had. My baby girl is now 17, she’s too big for it now, and even when she was just a little thing, the skirts were in such bad shape and terribly wrinkled that I never had her wear them.

So, I got to thinking. Someday, I would like to see my children’s daughters wear them. And so my journey to infuse some life back into this beautiful and fragile work of art, made by my mother’s hands years ago, began.

I was too nervous to wash it with water because I didn’t know how the dye from the batik section would react. If the color ran, it would ruin the rest of the skirt. So I decided on no water. Then I thought about giving it a good iron on low heat, but decided it might warp the shape of the skirt, which would be a travesty. Have you ever taken an iron to a knit sweater and that section looked totally wonky and stretched because the iron was too hot? Yes, that’s exactly what I didn’t want happening. I even thought about taking it to the dry cleaners, but quickly came back to my senses. What would the dry cleaners do to this delicate little thing? They probably know less about how to clean and care for it than I do. What to do? What to do?

After weighing all my options and thinking about it for weeks, and watching too much Antiques Roadshow, I finally came to the conclusion to leave them alone. The risk of ruining them was not one I was willing to take.

I purchased some crochet thread, threaded my needle, and carefully proceeded to stitch all the pleats together again.

Size 20 white crochet thread

Size 20 white crochet thread.

The pleats of the skirt had been left un-stitched for so long that there were no pleats left in some areas. As I started to gather the pleats, I imagined my mom doing the same some 30 odd years ago. Some of the holes made by her needle and thread were still visible and where they were, I followed these same stitches, channeling how accomplished she must have felt as she stitched this skirt for her daughters.

Gathering pleats for stitching.

Gathering pleats for stitching.

Now this little Hmong skirt will last another 30 years.

Pleated and ready for another 30 years.

Pleated and ready for another 30 years.

Thinking outside the box

A couple weeks ago I received a request for a taab tab pattern using purple and green thread. I was hesitant and a little skeptical, because I have always stuck to more traditional colors, such as red/pink and yellow/orange. As you can see, it turned out real nice, much better than what I had imagined. I showed my mom and she was pretty impressed at how beautifully it turned out. I might just have to make one for myself!

Purple and green taab tab.

Purple and green taab tab.

Below is a mock up of what the taab tab could look like once all the appliqué work is completed. You can get as fancy as you want with the appliqué, or go with a more subdued look. The top row of colorful diamonds is beautiful, but requires more experience and time because all the diamonds are formed and appliquéd by hand. A simpler option is to do a strip of colorful fabric as demonstrated in the second row that can be sewn on by machine.

Example of taab tab with applique work.

Example of taab tab with applique work.

This was a reminder for me to think outside the box. I am constantly learning new things from my followers.

Handmade shirt panel

Women's Hmong Thai front shirt panel. Source: The Miao Culture Tumblr

Women’s Hmong Thai front shirt panel.
Source: The Miao Culture Tumblr

Three beautiful Hmong Thai women’s shirt panels. These panels are sewn on the front opening of a shirt. I have seen them sewn on either side of a shirt; however I prefer it on the right side, with the left side of the opening just being a straight edge.

Unlike the many machine-embroidered designs that are worn today, these are handmade. No two are alike. Each design uses various embroidery and appliqué techniques. The colors are more dull than what they would have been when they were first made, but you can still see the striking differences in patterns and colors.

The sharp pointy edges are very dramatic. A lot of work went into making every stitch perfect.

“Vintage” abuse

Vintage

It’s been a while since my last post, not because there isn’t anything to talk about, but because I’ve been stuck on one topic in particular – vintage.

I have written a couple different posts on the topic, but scrapped them all. My dilemma: is this the appropriate forum for the discussion on what can or should be considered vintage Hmong embroidery and what should not? This can be quite the controversial subject. Vintage to me may be different from what it means to you.

According to Webster’s dictionary, vintage is:

A period of origin or manufacture
Length of existence: AGE
Of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance or quality: CLASSIC
Dating from the past: OLD

As you can see, good old Mr. Webster doesn’t offer us a clear-cut definition for vintage.

My definition of vintage is “of an era” – meaning, something from the past that is in tact, is made of its original materials, has not been altered from its original form, and can be or is dated.

So why has this topic been occupying my thoughts for so long? Because more than ever I am seeing Hmong embroidery and Hmong clothes being mislabeled as “vintage” or the “vintageness” (I don’t think that’s a real word, but it works) factor is questionable. I am by no means an authority on vintage items, but I know when something is blatantly not vintage.

Just do a quick search on Etsy or ebay for “vintage Hmong” and you will get hundreds, even thousands of results. Scroll through the items for sale that have been labeled “vintage.” It is quite the task to figure out what is vintage and what is not. Whether you have a trained eye for Hmong embroidery or not, you will be able to easily pick out non-vintage items.

I also have a problem with Hmong embroidery that has been repurposed or upcycled, still being called “vintage.” For me, vintageness is not transferable. A modern pillow or purse made of the materials from a legitimately vintage Hmong skirt does not make the pillow or purse vintage. I can assure you that anything Hmong that is old enough to be considered vintage will not be stuffed with down goose feathers.

The same thing goes for mass-produced items that are labeled “vintage.” Should anything that is so easily attainable be considered vintage? The act of labeling easily reproducible items vintage cheapens the word itself and makes a fool out of buyers. For me, vintage is the direct opposite of mass-produced items. Vintage Hmong embroidery are pieces that were once made by hand, are not being made any longer, are difficult to find especially in good condition, and/or the price is justified by the uniqueness and authenticity of the piece.

So, if you’re in the market for something that is Hmong and vintage. Define vintage for yourself and ask questions. Beware of sellers that label their goods “vintage,” even high-end sellers that have been featured on sites, such as One Kings Lane – especially when the item has been repurposed, upcycled, or does not include a date of origin.

If you are a seller that has been using the term “vintage” loosely, or have questions about it yourself, I recommend that you take inventory of what you are selling and determine whether the item(s) should be labeled as vintage. If they cannot, use other descriptive terms that may be more appropriate, such as authentic, traditional, hand-made, or one-of-a-kind. Your buyers will thank you for your honesty.

References:

Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). 2006. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Not quite right? Then make your own!

Striped sleeve Hmong outfits

Striped sleeve Hmong outfits

I found these beautiful striped Hmong outfits on one of my visits to the swap meet. What I really like about them is the use of colored fabric for the cross-stitch design – red, purple, and blue. I think like me, many of you are probably more used to seeing and working with white and black cross-stitch fabric.

The black and red outfit is my favorite, because I prefer the front opening over the other two outfits, which has a more crew-shaped neckline. I also like that on the black and red shirt, the stripes are all solid colored fabric, except for the final pattern along the cuff of the sleeve. Whereas on the purple shirt, you can see that the stripe at the top of the sleeve has a cross-stitch pattern similar to the sev.

Intricate cross-stitch pattern

Intricate cross-stitch pattern

The pattern used on the cross-stitched section of the sleeves on all of these shirts is a traditional pattern used on various pieces of Hmong clothes. What I associate the pattern with the most is a man’s sash. I have never seen this pattern interpreted like it is here for the sev. The same pattern used in the sev, has been applied to each side of the opening of the shirts. The choice of thread colors used on each of the colored cross-stitch colors are smart and striking.

I was very tempted to buy one of these outfits, but all of the patterns on this outfit were stitched by machine, and I prefer that my own collection is handmade whenever possible. I also prefer authentic designs. For example, the length and width of the sleeve is quite odd. The sleeve either needs to be longer and narrower so that it ends at the wrist, or shorter and wider so that it ends at the elbow. Also, I was quite unsure of the crew-neck design on the purple and blue outfits. I could certainly be wrong here, but I don’t quite think the neckline is true to traditional Hmong outfits.

So, when you see a Hmong outfit that you love, but there are a couple of things that are off, which cause you to hesitate or hold you back from buying it, snap a photo and make your own. By making your own Hmong clothes, you can truly make an outfit your own and incorporate the things you like and leave the things you aren’t too fond of out! That’s what I’m going to do. I am going to use these amazingly intricate patterns to create my own outfit. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out how they turn out!

More Black Hmong headpiece

Front, side, and back view of Black Hmong headpiece

Front, side, and back view of Black Hmong headpiece

This post piggybacks on my last post, which featured the Black Hmong headpiece. This picture shows the headpiece from the front, side, and back. The shirt is also a traditional Black Hmong shirt, although the applique in the front opening is not turned inside out. The back of the photo also shows the laug of the shirt, which sits at the nape of the neck. Unlike some Hmong shirts, the laug on Black Hmong shirts are flipped so that the beautiful applique work is facing down and all you see is the stitch work from the applique on the reverse side.

Black Hmong clothes hold a special place in my heart, so you will be seeing a lot of it!

Black Hmong headpiece

Hmong Dlub

This headpiece belongs to the Black Hmong (Hmoob Dlub/Hmoob Dub) of Laos. It’s just simply beautiful.

The headpiece is pieced together, layer by layer, to create a look unique to this people. The final touch is a small sash of silver coins wrapped around the top of the headpiece.