This is the first, but not likely to be the last post I make bragging about my mom’s Hmong embroidery skills. She really is the best, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my mom either.
From the time I was a little girl, people from all over would bring my mom unfinished pieces of Hmong attire to complete (this would be the case when the person finally figured out that they had bitten off more than they could chew), cuts of fabric to make into entire outfits, they would come so my mom could teach them how to sew outfits, make headpieces, and more. There were always Hmong women at my house sewing with my mom. Most of the time they were relatives.
My aunties would bring their daughters and my cousins and me would sit and sew next to our moms. Many a relationship was built and strengthened this way. Our moms would gossip about the hot topic of the day and us girls would talk about school, music, Hmong dancing, and boys.
Sometimes the people who came were people I had never seen before. People who had heard from their relatives and friends about my mom and how she could make them this or that.
Often times, my mom would make things for free as long as the person asking for help provided the fabric. Sometimes she bartered with others for whatever their talent or special skill was. She has always taught for free to anyone who was willing to devote the time to learning from her. Occasionally, and only in more recent years has she started to embroider and sew entire outfits and headpieces to sell. Even when she does sell something, she only asks for the amount that it cost her to purchase the materials, not for her time.
So many times I have seen her work so hard on a headpiece, spending hours and days perfecting every single stitch and making sure everything laid just right, just to return to her house a couple of weeks later to learn that she had given it away simply because someone had asked if they could have it.
When I was in middle school I watched my mom make a beautiful Hmong Thai (this refers to Hmong people originating from Thailand and their specific style of Hmong attire) skirt. It was a lengthy process that took my mom months to finish.
To start, my mom cut a small piece of bamboo from our backyard that measured about 6” long, about the length and diameter of a pencil. Then she took an aluminum Pepsi can and cut it in half. She set aside the bottom half for use later, but took the top half and cut three small pieces in the shapes of triangles out. She took the small piece of bamboo and cut a small slit down the side of the top. Then she took the triangle aluminum pieces she had cut previously and inserted them all in the slit. She tied the top of the bamboo with some cord so that the aluminum wouldn’t get loose and fall out and so that the bamboo wouldn’t split any further. This is what she used as her batik tool, called a Tjanting, to apply wax to fabric.
After she was sure her tjanting was sturdy enough for use. She heated up some coal in our woodstove. She put a little piece of wax in the bottom half of the Pepsi can she had cut earlier and placed it on top of the coal. I watched as the wax slowly melted.
My mom was ready to start batiking.
She laid her fabric out on our dining table, dipped her homemade tjanting into the wax, and then applied it to the fabric free-handing her own design. She did this for hours every day until all 7-yards was completed.
After she was done creating her design with the wax, she dyed the fabric. She mixed purple and black dye in a large bucket, placed the fabric in the dye, then stirred it around with a big branch she’d gotten from the backyard. After the fabric was dyed she hung it out to dry on our clothesline.
Once the fabric was dry, she had to remove all the wax she had placed on the fabric so that the design she had created could be seen through the dye. She did this by boiling all 7 yards of fabric in a huge pot on our stove. By doing this she melted all the wax off. Once all the wax was gone, she placed the fabric into ice-cold water. She vigorously rubbed the fabric back and forth to get any excess wax off. Then she wrung out all the water and hung it out to dry outside again.
When it was all dry and she brought it inside, I could see the beautiful design she had created and the fabric was now that familiar indigo color that many of our Hmong skirts were.
Since this was to be a Hmong Thai skirt, there was a lot of appliquéing to be done. Hmong Thai skirts are very vibrant and colorful. She appliquéd for weeks.
After she had finished the appliqué work, sewn the taab tab and foot on, she pleated the entire skirt by hand, leaving thread in the skirt to hold the pleats in place until it was ready to be worn. Pleating a Hmong Thai skirt is no easy task. Because of the thickness that is built up from all the appliqué work, it is actually real difficult and tough on the fingers to pleat. I still remember my mom’s hands and nail beds being stained slightly blue for months as she worked on this skirt.
That year, my big sister got to wear that beautiful skirt to the Hmong New Year. Boy was she lucky.
After the many Hmong New Year celebrations that year, a Hmong couple in the textile business who had heard of my mom’s skirt tracked her down so they could get a look at it. They were so impressed they offered her a small amount of monetary compensation to allow them to take the skirt to copy onto fabric for printing for mass production. They came once and my parents said ‘no’. They came again and my mom finally relented.
This was back in the day when pre-printed Hmong skirts were new, not the norm.
So the couple took the skirt. It was two months before my mom would see her skirt again. When they returned her skirt, they gave her one skirt that was made from the pattern of her original skirt as a gift (really, only one?). I asked her today where the copy was, I wanted to see it because I don’t remember ever seeing it and she told me she had given it away. Ai yi yi!
So, not only am I pretty sure that almost every one of my relatives has some piece of Hmong clothing or headpiece made with my mom’s own hands, you might own a Hmong Thai skirt made by her stashed in your Hmong clothes too!
There is something to say about someone who has never advertised their work, skills, or talents yet people have come from near and far in search of them. My mom can’t read, she can’t write, she barely speaks any English, and she is in no way perfect, but when it comes to Hmong embroidery, she is a Master.