Traditions Worth Keeping - Textile and Jewelry Making

Researchers and artists have described Hmong textiles as a form of visual expression. For thousands of years, the skills of embroidery, applique, reverse applique, hemp production, batik and indigo dyeing were passed down from mothers to daughters as young as 5 years old. Hmong clothing are traditionally made from hemp. The entire hemp process, from sowing the seeds through to weaving the cloth, are done by women.They say their inspiration for batik motifs and other needlework, known as paaj ntaub/paj ntaub, derives from their natural surroundings, plant and vegetable seeds, leaves, flowers, snail swirls, elephant footprints, etc.

Hmong are also renowned for their silversmith skills and jewelry making. These art forms were traditionally practiced by only men, but now are also mastered by Hmong women.

What is Hemp?

Hemp comes from the cannabis sativa plant, just one of several different varieties of cannabis. Most people are familiar with the rasta and indica varieties, which are known universally as marijuana. Cannabis varieties that contain THC are illegal in Laos and many other countries.

Some hemp does not contain THC and has been cultivated around the world for more than
12,000 years. The Latin name for hemp, sativa, means useful. Regarded as the crop for the future for its low environmental impact and high yielding raw fiber, hemp can be used as fuel, cloth, paper, food, oil, rope, and sail canvas. Oil made from the seeds can be burned as fuel and has fewer emissions than petroleum.

How do Hmong use Hemp?

Hemp, an important base material in Hmong clothing, is both essential and sacred to Hmong people. Hemp cloth is believed to protect against natural and spiritual elements in the afterlife. In remote villages in the mountains of Laos, Vietnam, and China Hmong women continue to grow and process hemp. After the plant is harvested, it is tied in a bundle and set out to dry. Then the bark, which is the fiber, is stripped from the stem, pounded, boiled, spun, and coated with wax before it is strung on a loom. In Vietnam and Southern China, Hmong women are often seen with hemp fibers wound around their hands, constantly connecting the separate fibers to make a long strand. The processing of hemp is extremely labor-intensive, but the final product is a durable cloth, similar to linen.

Batik and Indigo Dyeing

Batik is a resist dye technique created by wax drawn motifs. A technique practiced for over a thousand years from South America to Africa; Indonesia is accredited with its origin. The art of batik and dyeing is mastered by Hmong women and practiced mainly by the Green Hmong. Traditionally, women use hemp as a base fabric for the batik design to make clothing and other household items.

Batik requires that the cloth, usually hemp (more recently cotton and other fabrics) is scored in a grid making it easier to draw the symmetrical patterns. Bees’ wax collected from the forest is heated in small metal pots and mixed with indigo paste (which colors the wax and makes it easier to see on the cloth). A bamboo spoon, or "diav/dlav cab" as called in Hmong, has metal nibs and is used like a pen to draw the wax onto the hemp.

After the batik is drawn on the hemp, it is dyed with indigo. During the dyeing period the hands of most women are stained with blue dye. The wax marks will resist the dye when the cloth is dipped in the indigo pot and left to dry.

Indigo plants

Indigo plants are grown on the hillsides or in kitchen gardens near the house. The plant grows to about 2 feet high, and can yield 2 crops each year. The dye is contained in the leaves, which when allowed to ferment and then oxidize, produces a blue powder that is insoluble in water. This can be stored as a paste or powder. There are various ways of preparing the Indigo vat with substances that make the Indigo soluble. The urine of children, particularly boys, is a common additive, as well as lye, lime and rice wine. When the dye bath is bubbling, it is ready to use. The fabric is immersed in the dye vat and worked for about half an hour then hung up to oxidize into the distinct blue color. Care should be taken to make sure the wax does not melt. Subsequent dipping and oxidations will darken the color and the black of the fabrics is achieved by repeating the process twice a day, each day for a month. After the desired shade of blue/black is reached, the cloth is boiled to remove the wax, completing the batik process. (Excerpts taken from an article by Valerie Kirk, Lecturer, Australian National University in Canberra)

Hmong Jewelry

Traditionally Hmong people wear elaborate jewelry made of alloy and or silver melted from old French coins. The coins are often attached to colorful and elaborately stitched sashes or bags worn around the waist. In the past, family wealth was kept in the form of silver jewelry, silver bars and coins. During celebrations, especially at New Year, women and men adorned themselves with their best silver jewelry; the wealthy wearing several necklaces on top of each other weighing up to 10 pounds. These jewelries have intricate engravings with various patterns from symmetrical shapes to flowery images.

In addition to being decorative, many jewelries have spiritual significance; for example, keeping the soul with the body, and helping to ward off evil spirits. Babies are given a simple metal band with a little bell on it or cloth pouch containing herbal medicine. Large silver pendants on necklaces which look like old style lock have been described by tribal art collectors as ‘soul lock pendants’ to lock the spirit in the body, preventing illnesses or guide the soul back to the body.

Peace Bangles

Laos is the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita. From 1964-1973 the US waged a Secret War in Indochina, and dropped more than 250 million bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. US planes bombed Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years leaving the country filled with metals and unexploded ordinances. Destroyed by war and bombing, villagers were unable to use their lands; with few other means to earn a living, they began using the scrap aluminum from bombshells and bombies to cast spoons and make decorative shapes, such as animals, to earn money. Selling these products supplement a family's subsistence farming. One of these products is the Peace Bangle.

RedGreen Rivers™ works with our artisan makers to create beautiful accessories with these Peace Bangles, such as the hemp and silk wrapped bracelets, batik belts, and tote bags. We also carry plain, unwrapped bracelets, because it's a powerful message when we buy back the metal that has scared a country for generations.