Art

Fabrics of the Hmong

The Hmong people occupy areas primarily in; Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Different regions of Hmong have their own traditional dress elements, which make them uniquely recognisable. They also have various language dialects depending on which region they are from. Hmong are most notable for wearing dark, heavy fabrics, heavily embroidered with brightly coloured thread and head dresses adorned with silver.

Black Hmong of Northern Vietnam

Many of the Hmong people have made their way towards larger cities where they can sell their wares and interact with (especially in Thailand) with a booming tourist trade. There are, in fact, a number of tours to go out and see the Hmong villages but unfortunately this has become more of a tourist circus attraction (in Thailand, for example, with the ‘long neck’ Karen people) than real engagement and you are more likely to visit, pay to have your photo taken with them and have various scarves, bracelets etc. thrust under your nose than any real interaction on cultural exchange. Of course there are less tourist permeated villages but they are harder find and far from the beaten track. I am hoping that during my time in Laos next month, I am able to venture further north and meet some traditional Hmong who have settled in Laos and get an authentic feel for their traditions, especially when it comes to their crafts and needlework which they are famed for.

Hand stitching traditional fabrics

During my recent visit to Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand), I was lucky enough to get talking to a lovely American couple, who were now living over here. I mentioned my project for recording these traditional crafts and how I was finding it difficult to see past the ‘tourist Hmong’ that is just so prevalent here. They completely understood and gave me some insider information about a market that was heavily occupied by Hmong sellers, offering the usual bags, cushion covers, scarves etc. as well as lots of fabrics. Many came from traditional attire but had been stripped off, deconstructed and were being sold as smaller embellishments and scraps, that local designers and artisans were buying up and using with contemporary fashion and design. This sounded like an ideal place and it didn’t disappoint! Within minutes I was elbow deep in a pile of off cuts from traditional Hmong skirts.

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Piles of beaded pieces, removed from traditional dress

I selected a couple pieces, beautifully adorned with beading and asked how much they were… only 150 baht for the set (equivalent to £3.40). I couldn’t believe it, in tourist markets these would have gone for 5 times this at least. This could get dangerous!

These were genuine scraps taken from traditional Hmong dress and here they were just piled up on the floor, I’d found my Aladdin’s cave…

There was more, swathes of fabric piles in another room but I managed to resist! I saw an elderly woman hand stitching something similar to what I had just bought and asked if I could take her photo. She kindly obliged and I bought one of her scraps for 50 baht (£1.20). The work and craftsmanship that goes into these is incredible.

Artisan at work

These are the pieces I bought (below), along with a larger piece, gifted to me by the American couple, who had shown me this place. They then left in such a rush that I realised I hadn’t even caught their names! I had such a great morning at that market and will always remember their generosity towards an over excited foreigner.

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The long thin pieces are from skirts, possibly so too is the larger one but i’m not sure! So so beautiful.

I really loved this market, there was no pressure to buy and it had an authentically local feel to it. It did get me thinking to a darker side however.. here were the same pieces you can find up and down the tourist strip but at a fraction of the price. I’m always up for a good bargain but there seemed to be very little profit being made here, which leads me to think about elsewhere on the sale chain and specifically to the minority groups that these wares were coming from. It seems that wherever you buy from its the producers that are losing out. If I return I will look into trying to visit producers directly.

Piles and piles of embellished pieces and offcuts

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