Written by Katrina Ka Lee, WISE Intern
Everyone has their own style of storytelling. It can be verbal, physical, emotional or it can be communicated through images like the Hmong paj ntaub story cloth, also known as the “flower cloth.” Paj ntaub refers to traditional cross-stitched patterns on clothing and requires patience and talent to create a whole design. Among paj ntaub, the story cloth is just one of its most popular forms.
How the Story Cloth Paj Ntaub Became
The Hmong are an ethnic minority group residing in the mountains of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Dr. Yang Dao, one of the most recognizable Hmong professionals today, defined “Hmong” as translating to “free people.” The Hmong were declared an enemy by Communist Pathet Lao and were to be executed due to their cooperation with the United State's Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War. This involvement by the CIA would later be termed “The Secret War.” Because Laos was no longer safe for the Hmong, thousands of Hmong evacuated as soon as possible, heading south of the border to neighboring Thailand.
One crying child could alert the enemy and cause the deaths of all; therefore, when crossing a road or nearing an enemy village, those who had opium mixed small quantities of it with water and gave it to all children to put them to sleep. Those who had no opium placed their hands over the children’s mouths when they cried, so the enemy could not hear. Many children died in this way because the parents gave the children too much opium or covered their mouths too long. If a child died, parents dug a hole, piled dirt on top of the child, and walked on (Hamilton-Merritt 1993).
Many Hmong risked their lives and the lives of their loved ones by attempting to swim across the Mekong River, a large river separating Laos and Thailand, to seek refuge on the other side. Those who successfully crossed were arranged to stay in refugee camps where they had the choice of immigrating out of Asia or staying in the Thai refugee camps. Many of those who stayed in Thailand expected to eventually return to their native home of Laos. Because the Hmong came empty-handed, missionaries at the camps recommended that the Hmong women produce items to sell to the western markets.
Although fine needlework techniques and patterns are traditional to Hmong culture, story cloths are not. Missionaries urged women to embroider their experiences onto textile squares for an American audience. Although the Hmong people preferred bright and bold colors, missionaries chose hues they believed appealed to American taste (Kansas Historical Society).
And that was how the story cloth, paj ntaub, became.
Hmong-Lao/Hmong-Thai Point of View (Tradition)
Those who still remain in Laos and Thailand today rely heavily on livestock and farming in order to survive and on family members who migrated overseas to send them money. However, they cannot always rely on family members to send them money and certainly do not want to be a burden. In order to make a living, Hmong mothers teach their daughters how to sew paj ntaub clothing to sell. Those who are very skilled at sewing paj ntaub are able to make good income due to the high demand of traditional clothing for the Hmong New Year Festival, which occurs in late October to December. Once the embroideries are finished, they also send them overseas to be sold at a higher price.
Hmong American Point of View (Modern)
While the Hmong in Laos and Thailand make paj ntaub for profit, those who immigrated to the USA utilize the “flower cloth” form of paj ntaub to tell their history. The Hmong Americans view it as an opportunity to teach others about their journey -- the long hardships they had to endure that led them to “The Land of the Free.” Because Hmong language did not become alphabetized until 1950, many Hmong refugees did not record their histories in writings. These ‘story cloths’ became a recording and expression of both individual and collective experiences including trauma and loss across generations (Hickner-Johnson, Corey 2016).
The Extinction of Paj Ntaub
Today the ability to create paj ntaub is slowly dying. Carlos Gallego of the Asian American Press and Patrick Henry High School Art Teacher, Seexeng Lee, explain the fall of paj ntaub in both southeast Asia and USA. Sadly, however, the art form is being lost as in the United States it is rare for moms or grandmothers to pass on this art form due to it being very time consuming and few youth having an interest in learning the craft . . . Another contributing factor to the death of this method was that Hmong nowadays got a hold of new, lighter, cheaper, easily accessible, more colorful, printable fabrics such as cotton, polyester, silk and synthetic fabrics. Some traditional Paj Ntaub and many of the Story Cloths are no longer made by Hmong, because Hmong in Laos or Thailand are paying others (non-Hmong) to create it. They then export them here (US) to be sold at the local flea markets.
A possible solution to prevent this problem of losing the authentication of paj ntaub could be for the Hmong who are interested and determined in learning to take Paj Ntaub courses. This way the tradition of knowing how to sew paj ntaub can still be alive. XiongSeams Market, a store located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin founded in 2014 by a team of mothers and daughters who sew modern Hmong American pieces, now offers paj ntaub sewing courses within the area. “We are advocates for the art of sewing Hmong clothes, both traditional and modern.” Occasionally XiongSeams will travel to other cities to teach sewing courses depending on how much demand there is. Unfortunately, they cannot travel to every city and teach everyone who is interested. They are currently working on offering online classes for those who don’t live in the Milwaukee area.
Learn more at www.mkt.com/xiongseams or XiongSeams via Facebook. Many Hmong Americans are now returning to paj ntaub and utilizing it as a form of expression in art and fashion. Paj ntaub is still widely recognized in the Hmong community regardless of the generation gap and remains a defining part of the Hmong culture. Today paj ntaub can be found on anything such as a purse, wallet, key chain, clothing, or baby carrier.
Paj Ntaub: traditional cross-stitch designs typically found on Hmong clothing
Story Cloth: a quilted canvas design, usually depicting a story
Hamilton-Merritt, J. (1993). Tragic mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the
secret wars for Laos, 1942-1992. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Hickner-Johnson, Corey (2016). "Taking care in the digital realm: Hmong story cloths
and the poverty of interpretation on Hmongemboridery.org". Journal of International Women's Studies. 17 (4): 31–48. Retrieved 2017-02-21.