|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
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 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 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.
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.