history passed through textiles in hmong quilts

by Abigail Percy on 03/04/2006

in Historic Craft, Quilting

the other day, kari-bombari (also here) posted a thrifted quilt she was completely stunned by. an incredible mystery… who had made this quilt? what did it mean? she wrote:

“seeing this shocked me
where was this done?
who embroidered it?”

in flickr, others are attempting to understand the meaning (see more comments). éireann (oh bara) recently posted a link which explained this work is by hmong refugees, and it details the escape from the khmer rouge in excruciating detail.

ak47-hmong(detail please see the original)

when i first saw it, i pulled my boyfriend over to see this jaw-dropping image, literally with my hand over my mouth. he instantly recognized the AK-47, a model of a gun not used by european/US forces… though we didn’t know the story the detail and accuracy is amazing. to think of the other horrific details depicted in these textiles is just simply dumbfounding.

the story about this lost-and-found work folds in on itself… it was discarded to be bought… as karin said, “I couldn’t just leave this at the jumble sale. “… it was not passed from generation to the next in the hmong tradition. however here we find it, and we can learn more about their amazing history, as it has been captured in the quilt.
it’s really stunning and effective as it was meant to be.

it’s actually kind of amazing, exactly how effective an ‘readable’ this non-verbal narrative is… clever lutterlagkage (also here) figured out it is a story to be read from upper left to lower right, in four lines, detailing an escape across water:

“It is like a story and you are supposed to read it from right to left, don’t you think? So that makes it a four line tale about a horrible incident that happens to a village. Their village is attacked and they escape. They cross the river and end up in another country – the soldiers’ uniforms are different.”

More about the Hmong tradition…

Hmong Textile tradition
“Though they left their homelands behind when they emigrated to America, the Hmong people have preserved their cultural traditions through the making of pa ndau or “flower cloth.” This type of appliqué, adorned with embroidery, originated with the creation of ceremonial clothing for major life events. Celebrations of births, weddings, and even death required specially made cloth created by the woman of the house.”

Read more about the Hmong Tragedy

“The Asian Hmong culture is agrarian, like many cultures in Indochina, with religious beliefs based in animism (including the use of shamans for guidance, healing, and other ceremonies). Hmong culture places a great deal of emphasis on relationships between relatives and members of clans, with respect for elders and strong families. Remembering ancestors and traditional ways is important, and many efforts are made to preserve traditional ways and to keep the memory of the accomplishments and suffering of ancestors. Elaborate Hmong quilts or “flower cloths” (bandao or “paj ntaub” in Hmong) are one example of Hmong art that conveys stories from the past.

Hmong refugees in the U.S. struggle with our unusual ways, though the rising generation of youth have melted in well with American culture, even at the risk of losing touch with their heritage. For the older generation, adopting the new ways has been painful. The language is a great barrier to the elderly, many of whom have had no schooling and had no reading skills prior to coming to the U.S. Simple things like going to a store or walking through town can be terrifying experiences for the elderly. “

Indeed, there is more to the story of their lost history… Hmong people fought for the US forces with little or no recognition for their role in the Lao war, read an excerpt from “forgotten soldiers“.

Just completely stunning. Thank you to Karin for buying this piece, and not shirking away from its plain request that we simply look at it and attempt to learn from it.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 eireann April 4, 2006 at 1:57 am

I can’t speak in any way for the Hmong community here, but I do know that now in my city Hmong women make these embroideries specifically to sell–there is a market for them. So it may be that this was not actually discarded by a Hmong maker, but by a person who bought or was given it.

Here are further links, just from my city, to do with Hmong refugees in the U.S., the history of U.S. involvement with Hmong people in Laos/Cambodia, and Hmong textile work:

http://www.artsmia.org/education/teacher-resources/pnt-objectinfocus.cfm?v=18 (a huge, beautiful tapestry owned by the Mpls. Institute of Arts)

http://minneapolis.about.com/cs/demographics/a/hmongminnesota.htm (a very generic survey of Hmong immigration in Mpls.)

http://www.hmongtimes.com/ (a newspaper by members of the Hmong community)

I’m by no means an expert on Hmong history or textile work, but I grew up seeing the beautiful handiwork of Hmong women around and it was surprising to see this in another context.


2 midwest-transplant April 4, 2006 at 2:26 am

Regarding textiles and war, I saw a related artifact at the Textile Museum of Canada this past summer. It was a Timorese shawl, woven with images of bombs, tanks and warplanes. As with this Hmong quilt, it was a disturbing record of the deep scars war left on the society and its craftspeople. I’ve posted a photo of the shawl on my flickr site, here.


3 rebecca April 4, 2006 at 3:10 am

Additionally, guns and helicopters sometimes appear in Turkish rug design.


4 Sooz April 4, 2006 at 4:48 am

These are made in great number by Hmong living in Thailand and depict joyful villiage life scenes as well as scenes from the Lao war (not Vietnam). The Hmong make many significant handicrafts, particularly textiles in Nth Thailand, and are available very cheaply. I saw a skirt beign made by a Hmong grandmother late last year that took six months! I’ll try and post some pics later this week.


5 liz April 4, 2006 at 4:53 am

i can’t believe the ignorance of whoever dumped the quilt on a jumble sale – well, karin’s gain, their loss.
it’s a museum piece, surely.


6 Sooz April 4, 2006 at 7:11 am

I have posted some pics of other Hmong and hill tribe ptextile pieces at http://www.flickr.com/photos/soozs/

I agree that the piece found at the jumble sale was most likley a cast off from someone who bought it – quite possibly in Thailand. A single bed sized piece (not usually batted, but just the embroidered top and plain backing with triangular pieced border) would cost about $30-$50 Australian dollars. They are popular amongst tourists who often get home and decide they aren’t so crazy on how the pieces look in the context of their western homes.


7 Amy April 4, 2006 at 8:21 am

I saw an amazing, heartbreaking exhibition of textile depictions of war that included Hmong, Afghani, and many other traditions of textile making. It’s titled Weavings of War, and it is currently at the Michigan State University Art Museum. If you can get to see it, you should. It gives a totally different perspective.


8 mimulus April 4, 2006 at 11:54 am

I think wherever there is violence on a national scale you will see guns/war images reflected in art made by folks who call themselves artists by profession or jsut plain folk who make art as a way of life. There is an amazing piece at the de young museum in San Francisco by the Ghanan artist El Anatsui which initally looks like a intrepretation of kente clothe rendered by metal bottle shrouds, but as you stand back and look at it is an AK-47. I don’t know of any public photo of it, but you can see his art at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcafrica/africa05/anatsui9.shtml


9 liz April 5, 2006 at 4:42 am

How do I get hold of one- onesdepicting flight and war, not the idyllic village scenes?
begging yours at whipup, can I make a request that
if any one has ideas, that they email me at mallratone@hotmail.com?


10 betsy April 6, 2006 at 4:00 am

i’ve been to write something about Fundacion Solidaridad (http://www.fundacionsolidaridad.cl/) here, thanks for reminding me.

just another reason why crafts are important pieces of cultural history, as unfortunately, depicting hard times and horrific scenes is textiles is not new- they’re just often kept quiet, which is saddening.

thanks for this post!


11 iliana April 8, 2006 at 11:12 am

hello everyone-
this is my first time really posting on one of these crafting blogs, but i love to read them.
my comment is related to the hmong people, though not to crafting:
i wanted to recommend an absolutely beautiful story, written by anne fadiman, about a hmong child with an illness, being treated by american doctors, and the culture miscommunications therein, due to her hmong parent’s beliefs and understanding v. american methods of treatment. considering this topic is about the hmong people, i thought it was relevant, even though it’s not necessarily crafting. but inspiration can come from everyone, and for me, especially through books.
(the website for the book, also available on amazon and in bookstores)
this site is so beautiful to look at, not to mention all the sites that led me to it! thanks very much, i hope you don’t mind my literary contribution to the crafting site, but wordcraft is part of the family, right?


12 katie April 9, 2006 at 11:54 pm

I’ll second the recomendation for “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”, and add another recomendation for a children’s picture book, “Dia’s Story Cloth.” The book tells the story of the Hmong people’s journey from Laos, to refugee camps in Thailand, to the United States, and is illustrated by a huge story cloth made for the author by her family. It’s a simple telling of the story, and the photographs of the cloth are beautiful… a great way to see Hmong embroidery up close for folks who don’t live near a Hmong community.


13 hmong August 18, 2010 at 6:50 am

Keep up the good work. Helpful info on your post and interesting too. Hmong culture is so amazing.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: