• Manon Raath

Discovering Hmong textiles - the story behind our Sapa collection.

We all know the feeling of owning something very special - that item from a far off place with an exciting story behind it. Stories usually reserved for fantasy novels and adventure books. Every time you look at this particular item you smile, because you KNOW it’s special. The cushions in our Sapa collection are some of those items.

In today’s blog post I will tell you a little bit more about the artisans who created the beautiful, intricate textiles.

A few years ago, my husband and I visited Sapa in Northwest Vietnam. We had an amazing time staying with a Hmong family, trekking through rice fields, getting to know their lifestyle, customs and traditions. We also learnt about the process of making their traditional textiles and clothing. I have never experienced something like this and will never forget it. I instantly knew I wanted to work with them and use their textiles, I just had no idea how. Fast forward a few years and here we are with a collection of cushion covers made from textiles produced by these same ladies, and it is an absolute honour!

Notice the very fashionable gumboots? They were life savers through the muddy terrain. We also carried everything with us on the trip, hence all the bags and packs.

Who are they?

The artisans behind these beautiful textiles are women from the Black Hmong tribe in the mountain region of Lao Cai in Northwest Vietnam. The Hmong are a minority group that migrated from Southern China between 250 – 300 years ago and is sub-divided into branches based on their women’s clothing, customs and dialect. The Black Hmong tribe resides in the stunning foothills of Mount Fansipan. There are a few different tribal groups in this hill area: The Red Dao tribe, the Tay tribe and Black Hmong to name a few. The Black Hmong got their name from the ‘black’ clothing derived from repeatedly dyeing their clothing in Indigo.

In the final photo our guide is busy working on a new piece of embroidery that will go on her next clothing item.

What do they make?

Hmong women are master textile artists. They grow all the raw materials and rework it into finished garments. Before she gets married, each woman has to be able to make her own traditional garment from scratch, completely by hand – a sort of coming of age.

Married women annually make one set of clothes for each family member. They use and reuse everything. Every adornment is hand stitched and embroidered and specific attention is given to collars. Their clothing is tied together at the waist with a belt that is covered in hand embroidery. Children’s clothing are miniature versions of adult clothing. Hmong clothing and textiles are primarily made of hemp and dyed with indigo.

The process

· Hemp

In Hmong society, the entire hemp process, from sowing the seeds through to weaving the cloth is clearly defined as women's work, along with digging and planting other crops in the fields, collecting firewood, cooking, looking after the family, carrying heavy loads to market and walking many kilometres back home. – Valerie Kirk

Hemp is grown throughout the region and is similar to linen. It doesn’t need the chemical treatments of other plant materials and produces three times the amount of raw fibre than cotton. The end product is very durable and can last twice as long as cotton.

The outer layers of the hemp stalks are stripped after having gone through a drying process, leaving behind strands of fibre. The fibres are joined together by splitting the end of one strand and inserting the beginning of the next strand into the middle of the split strand. It is then twisted by hand until it forms a long continuous string, ready for weaving.

Weaving is done on a wooden handloom using a plain weave. The finished length of the cloth is usually between 8 and 10 meters and around 30 cm wide.

· Batik and indigo

Indigo has spiritual meaning and is representative of honour and devotion. – Sapa Designs

Batik is one of the techniques used by Hmong people to decorate their fabric. The woven hemp fabric is ‘drawn on’ with melted beeswax - using handmade tools made out of copper and bamboo - to create geometric patterns. Once the patterns are completed and the wax has dried, the fabric is dyed in a cold indigo bath. After the dyeing process the fabric is washed in hot water to melt the wax away, leaving behind designs in the natural hemp colour. When they don’t want any Batik design on the fabric, it is only dyed with indigo. The indigo is locally grown and harvested twice a year. It has to go through a fermenting process before it is ready to be used as a dye. Hmong people are known for their quality indigo that produces the most beautiful, deepest blue colour.

Applying the beeswax with handmade tools and the result after dyeing.

From the indigo plant to pieces of dyed cloth hanging to dry.

· Calendering / Finishing process

The finishing process flattens the fibres of the woven fabric between a rock and wooden log to create a smooth, lustrous effect. This is achieved by laying the fabric between a flattened log and a rock. A woman will then balance on the rock and push down on one side with one foot and on the other side with her other foot to create a seesaw movement. This movement flattens the fibres and moves the fabric along to the left so it can be one continuous process.

· Embroidery

All embroidery is done by hand. Each nature inspired symbol has a different meaning and tribes will use distinctive symbols specific to their tribe. The meanings are handed down from generation to generation. Women will take their embroidery with them wherever they go and will often embroider while at markets, when visiting family and friends or while in the fields (talk about multi-tasking)! They take great pride in their work and will praise each other for a job well done.

Notice the embroidery details on the sleeves and belt on the lady in the previous photo.

Ethically sourced.

Hmong people grow all their own food, hand make their clothes and live very simple lives. They are very community based and will share as much as they can. Buying directly from these artisans adds another form of income to the household while maintaining their traditions.

Whenever we visit we prefer to trek with a guide, learning more about the local culture and environment, and stay with locals. Staying with a local family is called a Homestay and is part of a government initiative to promote sustainable tourism. We source our fabrics from the ladies we stay with and their friends.

We absolutely love working with artisans from different cultures and backgrounds. We have so much to learn from them and appreciate the time, energy and effort that go into handmade items. It is a privilege to be able to play a small part in sharing their knowledge and work.

How lucky are we to own a tiny piece of this tradition?

A few polaroids from our trip. I usually felt like a giant. They got me to try on their traditional clothing and surprisingly enough, it fit... well sort of.

If you would like to find out a bit more about our trip, where we went, what we did and who we stayed with, let me know here and I'll share all our travel details with you. If you ever have the opportunity to go, I will highly recommend it!

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