Hmong embroidery “ua naav” 101

I really enjoy Hmong embroidery and making traditional Hmong clothes. There are many widely used patterns that can easily be found online or through collaborations with family and friends, or you can create your own. Designs can be as basic and simple or intricate and detailed as you want.

No matter what your pattern or design, and whether you’re a beginner or very experienced, here are the basics for you:

Tapestry or cross-stitch needles – for cross-stitching on cross-stitch fabric these are the best needles to use because they have a blunt point. These needles will also help to prevent from ‘splitting a square’ because the blunt point will usually slide into the cross-stitch hole on the fabric instead of splitting a stitch. The size and length of the needle will vary based on the stiffness of the fabric, the weight of the fabric, the fabric count, and the size of your hand. You will eventually find your favorite needle. It’s a good idea to always have a couple different sizes on hand.

Cross-stitch fabric – you can use any color of cross-stitch fabric, but the most common are white and black. Hmong embroidery does not usually reference a fabric count or stitched size, instead cross-stitch fabric sizes are grouped into small (ntaub mog), medium (ntaub nraab), or large (ntaub ntxhwb) which refers to the cloth count.

Thread – any type of thread that is bright and comes in a multitude of vibrant colors and shades, and will work with cross-stitch fabric will do. Typical colors are pink, green, orange, and blue. Be open to trying different types of threads and color combinations. It’s totally okay to have different types of threads on one piece. I would recommend staying away from any type of thread that is too slick. I know these can be very pretty and sometimes have a real nice sheen to them, but don’t let it fool you. Slippery thread can be difficult to work with because it’s hard to keep the appropriate amount of tension and there is no texture or grittiness to the thread to hold the thread in place. You have been warned! Keep in mind that you will want to pair the fabric size with the appropriate thickness of thread. If the thread is too thick for the cloth count the stitching will look too bulky. If the thread is too thin for the cloth count, too much of the fabric will be exposed through each stitch. Both are considered poor Hmong embroidery techniques.

Scissors – don’t skimp on scissors, a good pair will last you a long time. I recommend a really good pair of 3” or 4” embroidery scissors. A pair of thread clippers, which will come in very handy when you mess up and you have to cut through all your stitchwork (a good pair of embroidery scissors with a fine tip will also get the job done). A 3-inch folding scissor for when you travel, and for hanging around your neck. Folding scissors are also a safer option if you have little ones running around and you’re concerned about them getting into your sewing supplies (this only works if you always remember to fold them when not in use).

Comfortable seating – Hmong women usually embroider while sitting on a small stool, but you should sit on whatever is the most comfortable for you and your back. I recommend anything that can easily be moved near a window for natural light or put away when you’re not embroidering.

Natural light or small lamp – I prefer to embroider in natural light, it’s easier on the eyes. If you must use artificial lighting, pick a bulb that doesn’t get too hot and provides soft lighting.

Small basket – to hold all your goodies! Whatever you use needs to be big enough to hold the embroidery piece you are working on, the thread you are using, and scissors. I have a couple of small baskets that I use, each with a different piece I’m working on (I usually have a couple different things going on at once). I would recommend something with handles. You can really use whatever you like. My mom uses a small laundry basket lined with a black trash bag – the lining prevents her from losing small objects through the holes in the basket, and the dark color makes it easy for her to spot loose needles on the bottom of her basket.

Keep out of reach of small children – if you’ve got little ones running around, keep your sewing basket in a safe place where they can’t reach. The last thing you want is to be paranoid about every step you take because your little one spilled all your needles on the ground! You also don’t want to deal with the mess of tangled up thread, trust me, NOT fun!

And last, but not least, invite a friend over to embroider with you! Embroidery doesn’t have to be boring, time flies when you’ve got company to embroider with.

Please share your own tips, tricks, and tools with me and other readers in Comments below.

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