Hmong textile art

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Hmong girls in brightly coloured clothing in Laos in 1973.

Hmong textile art (RPA:Paj ntau or Paj ntaub, or "flower cloth" in the Hmong language; sometimes transliterated as pa ntau) consists of textile arts traditionally practiced by Hmong people. Closely related to practices of other ethnic minorities in China, the embroidery consists of bold geometric designs often realized in bright, contrasting colors. Different patterns and techniques of production are associated with geographical regions and cultural subdivisions within the global Hmong community.[1] For example, White Hmong are typically associated with reverse appliqué while Green Mong are more associated with batik. Since the mass exodus of Hmong refugees from Laos following the end of the Secret War, major stylistic changes occurred, strongly influenced by the tastes of the Western marketplace. Changes included more subdued colors and the invention of a new form of paj ndau often referred to as "story cloths." These cloths, ranging in size up to several square feet, use figures to represent stories from Hmong history and folklore in a narrative form. Today, the practice of embroidery continues to be passed down through generations of Hmong people and paj ndau remain important markers of Hmong ethnicity.

Traditionally, paj ndau were applied to skirts worn for courtship during New Year festivals, as well as baby-carriers, and men's collars. The core visual elements of "layered bands of appliqué, triangles, squares tilted and superimposed on contrasting, squares, lines and dots, spirals, and crosses."[2] The use of border patterns may show the influence of Chinese embroidery techniques.

Refugee experience[edit]

When communist forces took control of Laos in 1975, Hmong people who supported the Royal Lao Government and fought for the American CIA during the Secret War were singled out for retribution. Tens of thousands of Hmong people escaped into Thailand as part of a mass exodus of 300,000 refugees.[3] Once in Thailand, most spent several years in overcrowded refugee camps awaiting resettlement. Dependent on relief agencies for subsistence, many Hmong people began selling handicrafts to improve their standard of living. As early as 1976, NGOs, like the Christian and Missionary Alliance, coordinated with Hmong women to sell their needlework abroad.[4] In Laos, only rare moments of free time were spent on embroidery to adorn pieces of clothing for important rituals. Now with time to spare in the camps, women produced purses, bed spreads, and toaster covers which were shipped to relatives abroad who could sell them and send money back.

Men also contributed to the endeavor by creating drawings that could be transferred to cloths. In the 1960s, missionaries had taught men to draw illustrations for the folktales used in literacy primers. Cloths featuring elaborate and fantastic narratives sold well overseas and production grew. Eventually, themes from recent Hmong history, including the flight from Laos, were incorporated in the "story cloths," providing a historical record that did not require literacy for interpretation.[4]


  1. ^ Hmong - The Virtual Hilltribe Museum @
  2. ^ 1. Judith Lewis, “Hmong visual, oral, and social design: innovation within a frame of the familiar” (California State University, Sacramento, 1993), p. 55
  3. ^ Lee, Gary Yia (1990). "Refugees from Laos: Historical Background and Causes". Retrieved 2007-05-09. 
  4. ^ a b Tim Pfaff (1995). Hmong in America: journey from a secret war. Eau Claire, WI: Chippewa Valley Museum. pp. 58–61. ISBN 0-9636191-3-6. 

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