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Asia, Texts, and Textiles at the Library of Congress, Part II: Hmong Story Cloths

(The following post is by Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

This is the second part of a two-part series on textile resources from Asia at the Library of Congress. Part one, “An Urdu Women’s Magazine from during Partition,” looks at the experiences of women refugees during the 1947 Partition of India. Part two picks up the thread of textiles born in conditions of dislocation by drawing attention to Hmong story cloths. These works of textile art came out of the context of the exodus of thousands of Hmong from Laos following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The homeland of the Hmong, a diverse ethnic group, has historically been the mountainous regions of southern China, northern Laos, northern Thailand, and northwestern Vietnam. Some have lived in lowland areas, engaging in wet rice production. Map of Southeast Asia. [Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2003] Geography & Map Division.

Paj ntaub, or “flower cloth,” has been an integral part of Hmong culture for centuries. The Hmong—a diverse ethnic group whose homeland has historically been mainly in the mountainous regions of southern China, northern Laos, northern Thailand, and northwestern Vietnam—have placed great importance on the creation of these intricate textiles. Women, who have been the primary producers and keepers of traditional Hmong needlework, typically incorporate symbols of marriage such as the double snail shell, and protective elements such as the rooster in their embroidery. Textiles bind the human world to an environment suffused with the spiritual. Pompoms sewed onto hats serve not only decorative purposes but also to disguise children as flowers to hide them from malevolent spirits. Tiny triangles appliqued to fabrics symbolize fish scales that serve as a barrier to protect against evil. This creativity is multiplied by the variant ways in which different Hmong subgroups—Green Hmong, White Hmong, Striped Hmong—interpret designs and symbols.

An embroidered scene of wild animals familiar to the Hmong in their natural environment. Among the animals pictured are wild boars, rhinoceroses, elephants, pheasants, and monkeys. At the center of the scene is a pool of water, a symbol of life and healing. All around, flowers blossom. It is spring time. [Hmong hand-stitched story cloth maps of mainland Southeast Asia], Map 1. [Laos]: [publisher not identified], [2016]. Geography & Map Division.

This story cloth depicts scenes of Hmong engaging in food production: rearing livestock, planting rice, and harvesting a variety of crops such as papayas, bananas, corn, and pumpkins. Present in this story cloth are the terms “Hmong” and “Mien,” an ethnic designation used in southern China to describe groups affiliated with the Hmong. “Laos” also features prominently in this story cloth, mapping the location of the characters stitched into this bucolic representation of Hmong life. [Hmong hand-stitched story cloth maps of mainland Southeast Asia], Map 2. [Laos]: [publisher not identified], [2016]. Geography & Map Division.

An embroidered scene of village life in the Mekong river region of Laos that highlights pursuits such as fishing, wet rice cultivation, and growing and harvesting different crops. [Hmong hand-stitched story cloth maps of mainland Southeast Asia], Map 3.  [Laos]: [publisher not identified], [2016]. Geography & Map Division.

This rich tradition of imbuing textiles with meaning provides the cultural context in which a new form of Hmong textile art sprouted: the “Story Cloth.” Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the withdrawal of American troops, tens of thousands of Hmong who supported the United States against the communists in Laos in the Secret War faced reprisal. The Secret War was a conflict in Laos that saw the CIA covertly fund and train fighters, many of whom were Hmong, to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers. As the ruling communist regime sought to exact revenge on those who had fought against it, thousands of Hmong crossed the Mekong River to escape to Thailand. These escapes were harrowing experiences, with many perishing. Displaced and confined to refugee camps, some Hmong women began to embroider tapestries as a means to relate their experiences, and also preserve connections with a lost homeland. The first story cloths are thought to have been made by various women at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in northeastern Thailand starting sometime in the late 1970s. These works of art resonated with the Hmong community, and also found a market outside the camps.

The production of story cloths begins with the selection of a fabric, a blue cotton blend being a popular choice. Outlined images are then drawn onto the cloth, and then filled in with long satin stitches of multi-colored thread. The stories depicted are then framed with a border, often of triangles symbolizing the protective highlands of Laos. Upon completion of the embroidery and border, muslin is usually sewn to the back of the fabric.

As pictorial representations of narratives, story cloths not only convey wartime and migrant experiences, but also serve as vehicles for communicating other stories. Folktales, oral histories, and farm life are frequently chosen as subjects for story cloths.

Hmong hand-stitched story cloth depicting Nou Nplai and Yer folk tale. [Hmong hand-stitched story cloth maps of mainland Southeast Asia], Map 4. [Laos]: [publisher not identified], [2016]. Geography & Map Division.

A famous folktale often found in story cloths is that of Nou Nplai and Yer, two newlyweds. In this story, Nou Nplai escorts his wife, Yer, part of the way to her parents’ home. Continuing on her own, Yer is kidnapped by a tiger who, being very taken with her beauty, keeps her for himself. Nou Nplai discovers what has happened when he arrives at his in-laws’ house and promptly sets off, sword in hand, to rescue Yer. He kills the tiger, and husband and wife are reunited. An example of a story cloth that depicts this story can be found at the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Story cloths started in the refugee camps of Thailand, and as more and more Hmong began to leave and adjust to the demands of new homes in urban surroundings, the art of making story cloths began to dwindle. The last refugee camp for Laotian Hmong in Thailand closed in 1997, and between 2004 and 2006, the last wave of Hmong refugees arrived in the United States, settling in places like St. Paul, Minnesota. New priorities have meant that fewer and fewer Hmong make story cloths. Nonetheless, there are efforts in the Hmong community in America to pass on needlework skills to the younger generation, which could yet see new textile art forms arise.

There are four contemporary Hmong story cloths available at the Geography and Map Reading Room of the Library of Congress. They were presented to the Library in 2016, and images of the story cloths are accessible online. These story cloths are one example of the many textiles found in multiple divisions across the Library. For more information about the possibilities for research on textiles—particularly ones from Asia—please visit the Asian Reading Room or reach out through the Asian Division’s Ask-A-Librarian service.

Further Reading:

American myths, legends, and tall tales: an encyclopedia of American folklore” / Christopher R. Fee and Jeffrey B. Webb, editors. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC [2016].

Hmong: History of a People” / Keith (Cher chung) Quincy. Marshall, WA: GPJ Books, 2017.

Hmong story cloths: preserving historical & cultural treasures” / Linda A. Gerdner. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, [2015]

Michigan Hmong arts: textiles in transition” / edited by C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell. East Lansing, Mich.: Folk Arts Division, Michigan State University, 1984.

Stitching the world: embroidered maps and women’s geographical education” / Judith A. Tyner. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, [2015].

Teaching with folk stories of the Hmong: an activity book / Dia Cha, Norma J. Livo; photographs and art by Norma J. Livo. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited, 2000.

Tragic mountains: the Hmong, the Americans, and the secret wars for Laos, 1942-1992 / Jane Hamilton-Merritt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

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