Arts & Crafts
Arts and crafts plays an important role in Hmong life; they create beautiful and functional objects with metal, wood, and cloth to adorn themselves and their surroundings. Hmong create a backpack basket from bamboo; take great care in making the rice pounding device; fashion with a sense of traditional style the stone grinder (which assists in the preparation of animal food); and place great emphasis on exquisite embroidery for colorful skirts and costume accessories. Also created with care and much artistic skill are Hmong jewelry, musical instruments to entertain the living and fulfill ceremonial functions, and such household and farming tools as the short knife, the sickle, the hoe, and the long knife.
Jewelry: Earrings, bracelets, rings, and silver necklaces are just some of the Hmong jewelry creations. These are commonly made of silver. In earlier times, only the members of wealthy families could afford to wear an elaborate silver necklace. More recently, this practice has grown common and most necklaces are of relatively elaborate styles. Many modern necklaces incorporate various colors and materials as well, so a Hmong silver necklace from the pre-Vietnam War era will most likely be quite different from a similar item from the post- Vietnam War era. Such changes include evolution in the size, the decorative style, the technique of execution, the addition of color, and the weight. The wealthier a Hmong person is, the larger and more heavy the necklace would be. The larger and more decorative necklaces will most often be worn by women, while men tend to choose a simpler and more modest design. However, the necklaces embody deep and rich meanings for both men and women. Creating and enhancing a festive mood, for instance, silver necklaces are commonly worn by both genders on special occasions such as the Hmong New Year and wedding celebrations.
Of course, jewelry is never just for aesthetic or decorative purpose, it plays a role in social tradition. Jewelry is often a sign of class and wealth. On the other hand, jewelry can also be utilized for healing. Bracelets, necklaces, and anklets will be worn for reasons of both spiritual and physical well-being for many Hmong. In fact, many elderly Hmong believe that wearing a copper bracelet can help to alleviate a headache and improve circulation of the blood. As prescribed after certain rituals performed by a shaman, a necklace made of red and black, or simply red, string– or copper – will be recommended for someone who has fallen ill; wearing such a piece of jewelry is believed to protect the sick person from evil spirits .These jewelry traditions are changing, and, in America, Hmong jewelry has evolved dramatically with the advancement in technology and the availability of silver. While the silver necklace remains traditional in look, such items as the ring and the bracelet have been modified to meet more modern tastes for contemporary customers. There are at least three Hmong jewelry companies in America that specialize in serving the Hmong community.
The Blacksmith’s Art: For millennia, the Hmong blacksmith, usually a male, has been creating items both functional and beautiful for the community with unique design in different shapes and sizes. The common items include long, curling knives used for cutting bushes; sickles used for harvesting rice or for harvesting thatch as roo ng material; a variety of shovels, spades, hoes, and short knives, for farming and daily usage.
In America, while many elderly Hmong men dream of having their own blacksmith workshops in order to fashion from scratch their own tools, it is seemingly difficult, if not quite impractical, to establish such a facility due to its specialized nature and the related cost. In fact, the only functioning Hmong blacksmith center currently in existence in the United States is in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Aside from items created there, most Hmong tools and household items of traditional designs are imported from Laos, Thailand, or China.
Basketry: The Hmong’s artistic ability is also showcased in the woven implements that Hmong families use daily; those items include the backpack basket, the winnowing basket, the woven dust pan, the water bucket, the rice steamer, and the strainer. Fashioned by both men and women, these baskets are woven in a skillful manner from natural materials, usually from bamboo or rattan, so that they perform well, last long, and are pleasant to the eye.
Needlework: Perhaps in no other area is the depth and breadth of Hmong aesthetics more apparent than in the area of needlework. In fact, Hmong needlework is well known in the world, and, other than the embroidery of clothing, is utilized in the creation of the paj ntaub, meaning the “flower cloth.” The traditions which govern the creation of the paj ntaub incorporate many rules of form and design. Broadly speaking, there are two sorts of paj ntaub: the paj ntaub of traditional designs and patterns, and the more modern story cloth. With respect to the more traditional paj ntaub, one may see up to many complex variations at work in its construction: 1) the paj ntaub of cross stitch needle-work; 2) the paj ntaub of reverse appliqué; 3) the paj ntaub of the elders; 4) the embroidery paj ntaub; and, 5) the dyed and colored batik. While the creation of such wonderfully ornamental needlework is complex and time-consuming, the uses are widespread in Hmong life. They are found in traditional men and women’s costume and in ceremonial clothes worn at weddings and other occasions. In fact, embroidery, cross stitch, and reverse appliqué paj ntaub will be observed in both men’s and women’s traditional costume, while elderly pa ntaub can be found in ceremonial settings. Even baby carriers as well as children’s hats and clothes are decorated with such needlework.
A combination of the many different paj ntaub patterns, techniques, and designs are used in the creation of Hmong traditional costume. We may see in many items of Hmong daily wear, such as shirt sleeves, the sash, the apron, the blouse, the hat, and the skirts of the Green Hmong, the paj ntaub of reverse appliqué; the paj ntaub of cross stitch needlework; and batik. Among all of these garments, it is considered that the skirt of the Green Hmong demands the greatest artistic skill for its creation, traditionally made of hemp cloth.
The creation of the cloth for such a skirt will typically take one year, while the patterning will demand a few months. This process begins with strips of bark taken from the hemp plant, which are then alternately boiled and pounded with rocks several times until the resulting bers are soft. These bers are then spun by hand into a yarn which is, in turn, a highly durable fabric and extremely pleasant to the touch. Upon this cloth, weavers use a wax pen to carefully draw their preferred designs, then dye the fabric by the process we know as batik. The cloth, usually ten to fourteen feet in length, is dipped into a dye bath, then removed and allowed to dry in the sun. Finally, paj ntaub of reverse appliqué of geometric design is then stitched into the skirt to give it the colorful appearances.
The Story-Cloth: A more recent, and therefore less traditional, item of paj ntaub needlework is the story cloth. A story cloth is a cloth upon which images have been embroidered, which collectively they narrate a tale. This form or needle work did not exist in Laos prior to the Vietnam War, however. This new form of paj ntaub was invented because there was little else to do in the refugee camps of Thailand, and there was no book written about Hmong experience and life in Laos. Their stories were seldom discussed or even known. In order to provide a source of income and to share their life experiences, Hmong men drew patterns on cloth which express stories of recent history, after which women embroidered these stories into the fabric. These story-cloths offer a unique window through which young Hmong and foreigners could learn about Hmong life and history, transcending language, generational, and geographical barriers. This activity also had a practical application, for, upon completion, these 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, refugees were able to buy food for their families, as well as more cloth and thread to begin the process anew.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.