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Hmong Story Cloths

Hmong Story ClothsWe recently sold one of our XL Hmong History Storycloths to the Queensland Art Gallery for $1400 (April 2011) and after they received the storycloth we received the following email below. Receiving emails like this make it all worthwhile for Bai and I!

Dear Peter and Bai: I am writing to thank you for your assistance with securing the wonderful Hmong History storycloth for our contemporary textile collection here at the Queensland Art Gallery. I have been impressed with your passion for Laos textiles and the high level of professional service you provide to your online customers. Laos Essential Artistry provides important opportunities for Laos textile artists to market their works to international collectors, museums and galleries via an easy to navigate website. Your obvious commitment to the artists ensures that all works are well documented with an established provenance essential to institutional collections. I have appreciated you prompt attention to all of my enquiries and willingness to undertake additional research where required. Thank you again.

Storycloths and more traditional Hmong needlework or paj ntaub (in Hmong) are true decorative works of art, and are finding their way into more and more homes, and here at Laos Essential Artistry we are proud to feature story cloths created by several women’s cooperatives in Vientiane.

Paj ntaub -- a phrase that means "flower cloth" and is pronounced "pan ndau" -- dates back over 2,000 years. It encompasses embroidery and applique, often featuring geometric designs depicting animals or other creatures.

The uses of paj ntaub are widespread in Hmong life in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. They are found in traditional men and women’s costume and in ceremonial clothes worn at weddings and elsewhere. In fact, embroidery, cross stitch, and reverse appliqué paj ntaub will be observed in both men’s and women’s traditional costume. Even baby carriers, and children’s hats and clothes are decorated with such needlework.

The story cloths we’re most familiar with in the states came much later. Evolving in Thai refugee camps, these picture cloths grew out of an earlier effort to teach written language to the hill people, Tim Pfaff writes in Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War (1995, Chippewa Valley Museum Press) that "Missionaries had collected Hmong folk tales in Laos in the 1960s to use in school primers. They taught Hmong men to draw characters to illustrate the books. Years later, faced with the unwelcome idleness of refugee camp life, men continued to draw and Hmong women experimented with transferring the illustration to cloth."

"I'm not sure who came up with the particular suggestion of the storycloth," adds James Leary, a consultant on the book and a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's folklore program. "There were various social workers among them who were trying to look ahead to (the Hmongs') transition to the United States and had the notion that they could translate their needlework skills into a larger American market."

So in the refugee camps “…the Hmong men would draw patterns on cloth which expressed both stories of recent history and traditional life in the mountains of Laos, and the women embroidered these stories into the fabric. This activity had a practical application, for, upon completion, these story cloths were sent to family members residing in America, Australia, Canada, and France, and there sold to raise money for the artists. With the funds thus raised, refugee were able to buy food for their families, as well as more cloth and thread to begin the process anew.” ~ from the Field Guide to Hmong Culture produced by the Madison Children’s Museum.

Ever since the days Hmong lived in refugee camps like Ban Vinai in Thailand, the Hmong women, as time allows, continue to embroider their masterful story cloths. In our present hectic day life of the 21st century, even in Laos (relatively speaking…) there is less time for the women to do their embroidery, both for their own traditional purposes and for story cloths they can sell to tourists. Before the resettlement of over 15,000 Hmong from Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand around 2003-2005, the women and girls at the Wat were often the main wage-earners for their families through their embroidery skills, mostly embroidering traditional clothing items sold to Hmong in the states and to a lesser extent, story cloths sold to tourists in Thailand and Laos.

Here at Laos Essential Artistry we’ve gotten to know and support several Hmong women who operate cooperatives of Hmong women who embroider story cloths that are sold in the Morning Market in Vientiane. The story cloths we carry come in several sizes, a small square size, and both large vertical and horizontal cloths (approximately…). These cloths feature activities seen in the traditional life of the Hmong in Laos. From planting and harvesting rice, picking hot pepper, feeding pigs and chickens, carrying heavy loads in baskets on their back, etc.

For any schools that have Hmong students I would think having one or two of these story cloths would be a must and there are all sorts of exciting curriculum connections that could be made. Most importantly would be to invite Hmong parents or grandparents to come and talk about some of the traditional activities depicted in the story cloths that were so much apart of their lives in Laos. Students could interview their parents or grandparents and then write up their stories and make them into a book, PowerPoint presentation or???

We also have x-large story cloths that depict both historical events and story cloths custom designed for us that highlight the rich ethnic diversity in Laos that depict in one cloth all the Hmong, Mien, Lao and Lao Theung involved in daily activities. For schools that have a mixture of Hmong, Mien and Lao it would be great to display one of these story cloths recognizing all of the Laotian refugee groups. Please contact us if you're interested in one of the XL "Dia Cha" Hmong History story cloths and we can send you photos.

These cloths are true works of art and they may become more rare as the Hmong women find they have less time to do their embroidery as the pace of life quickens in Laos.

Have any of you checked out any other sites selling Hmong storycloths? We were just doing some research today (2/28/2011) and see that it's really difficult to try to find Hmong storycloths for sale and if you do, you will see a site like the Hmong ABC store. Just check out their prices!!! They sell what they call a "Hmong Farming Storycloth" for $240 and we sell similar ones, just as large with better quality embroidery for $90!!! The fact is that even in Laos, the Hmong women have less time to embroider these storycloths so they are becoming more difficult to find. So if you're interested in getting a storycloth, don't wait too long!

On 2/21/2011 we received an email from a customer who had ordered a storycloth and she wrote, "Thanks Peter and Bai. I received the Hmong storycloth today. It's beautiful and I will be ordering more as gifts in the future. Best, Nina"

We would love to hear of any sites that can match our pricing and quality.

Hmong Story Cloths