|Hmong Textiles: Ties that Bind a Culture
Patricia L. Cummings
If you have ever laid eyes on a piece of H mông Textile Art, you know that it is love at first sight. The intricately-stitched
creations of Paj ntaub or Pa nDau (pronounced Pond ouw) are made with loving hands and utilize a number of techniques
including cross stitch embroidery, surface embroidery, reverse appliqué, and appliqué. As time goes on and the U.S.
population of refugees from the Vietnam War are aging and younger generations have other things to do, needlework
among the Hmong people seems to be waning. This article seeks to show you some examples of the artistry of their work.
Hmong baby carrier
Note: The "H" is silent in H mông and the word sounds like "mung."
Types of Patterns
The H mông people produce two types of textiles: geometric and pictorial. Each piece is uniquely-made and is a one-of-a-
kind textile, yet certain recurrent themes are present. Common themes are “Snail’s House,” “Elephant Foot,” and “Ram’s
Head,” a few of the design names. The term "flower cloth" refers to textiles with geometric designs. Many of the pictorial
textiles are called "story cloths." Some of those depict peaceful scenes, crops and animals; others show the Hmong people
fleeing across the Mekong River to seek asylum at the end of the Vietnam War.
Example of a Hmong quilt block
Had it not been for the friendship between the Hmong of Laos and the United States military during the Vietnam War, most
Americans would be unaware of the rich textile traditions of these brave and gentle people. Hmong contributions to the war
efforts were immense. They intercepted Vietcong supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, rescued downed U.S. helicopter
pilots, were the eyes and ears of the Central Intelligence Agency, and worked as foot soldiers. More Hmong than
Americans died in that conflict.
War quilt shows Hmong people fleeing at the end of the war. Photo courtesy of Betty Wilson
When the U.S. ended the Vietnam War in 1975, the Hmong people were at the mercy of the Communist victors, who were
intent on retaliation. Ultimately, they fled across the Mekong River to reach the safe shores of Thailand. Half of the Lao
Hmong populations, about 230,000 people, were sheltered at United Nations refugee camps, where they were held until
cleared to move on to another country. With little to do in the camps, both men and women passed the time by making
When Hmong men picked up a needle, they told the story of "Communist soldiers with guns terrorizing innocent civilians,
while helicopters and planes drop mycotoxins that some called "Yellow Rain." The lethal manmade concoction was
repeatedly dropped on Hmong villages, causing severe illness and death. The story cloths of the men also show attempts to
escape across the Mekong River, including depictions of bamboo sticks to which they clung, rafts, tires, inflated plastic
bags and occasionally, boats (if they paid someone). Many drowned because they did not know how to swim. These story
cloths are a poignant way to instruct future generations about what actually happened and why it was important to seek
The Hmong are a proud and independent people whose history stretches back 4,000 years to southwestern China. To
escape Chinese persecution, the agrarian-based mountain dwellers fled to the hililsides of Burma, Laos, Thailand, and North
Vietnam, heavily migrating during the 1860s. The Chinese had divided the Hmong into separate groups, the largest of which
were the White Hmong and the Blue Hmong. Other group names included Green Hmong, Black Hmong, Striped Hmong,
Flowery Hmong, and Chocolate Hmong, among others. Individuals within each group were required to wear corresponding
clothing colors or designs.
Needlework is a cradle-to-grave tradition for the Hmong. Grandmothers are responsible for making elaborate embroidered
or batiked baby carriers in anticipation of a new baby's arrival. After they are born, babies wear brightly colored hats, made
to look like flowers from a distance, so that they will not be snatched away by evil spirits.
Mothers, in turn, teach their children how to embroider as early as the age of three. An online video, Threads of Life (www.
youtube.com/watch?v=ihf6ELqEma4), has narration by a young girl who points out that the Hmong are very shy but
embroideries create an important connect for mother and daughter. In her booklet, The Pa Ndau of Ia Moua Yang:
Keeping Alive the Treasure of the Hmong, Yang touchingly observes, "As the mother gets older, she and her daughter make
a very special Pa Ndau for a gift exchange so when they go to the spirit world, they will be able to meet each other again."
Included in every Hmong girl's dowry are special burial cloths that are given to her when she leaves home. Funeral
celebrations are very significant to the Hmong community.
Besides story cloths and flower cloths, the Hmong make a variety of embroidered objects, including cross-stitched belts
and holiday ornaments. Currently, the highly contrasting colors of traditional Hmong work have given way to a more
subdued palette geared to please the typical American consumer (an effect of studying the marketplace to see what sells
well). May the Hmong traditions continue for a very long time!
In July and September 2009, I wrote a series of articles that feature many photos of Hmong work. The articles were
published in The Quilter magazine (All-American Crafts, Inc.) and are too extensive to try to re-create here.
2015. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. All Rights Reserved.