Hmong Story Clothes Deciphered

Updated on August 26, 2019
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

The Hmong Story Quilt hanging at the Fresno Adult Education Building.
The Hmong Story Quilt hanging at the Fresno Adult Education Building. | Source

Quilts Created by Women of Other Cultures

To try to understand the story quilt I saw in the lobby of the Fresno Adult School, I interviewed Say Xiong and Eldrick Chang about their heritage and story quilts.

It is not unusual for women to find ways to add color and creativity to their everyday work. In my background, there is a tradition of Memory Quilts. A memory quilt may go back much farther than the pioneer days my mother speaks of. When the cloth was hard to come by, every piece was utilized even when a child had outgrown their clothes or when a rip had made a garment unusable. Useable pieces of the clothes were then cut out and saved for quilting purposes. Memory quilts were special because each piece of fabric held a story behind it. One piece from the baby who didn't live past his 6th month, another from the wedding clothes they married in, another from a shirt worn during the last dance attended or even embroidered names and dates. These became cherished heirloom keepsakes passed down to daughters when they wed. Today there are many websites offering the construction of memory quilts using pieces of clothing of the consumer’s choice. One such site told of making quilts for the widow and 4 daughters out of the man’s many signature plaid shirts.

The distinctive dress of the Hmong women at the Chinese New Year Celebration.
The distinctive dress of the Hmong women at the Chinese New Year Celebration. | Source

Trying To Understand

The Hmong people have a long history of searching for a land where they can be free. Their people were subsistence farmers and are said to have come from northern China long ago, and moved southward to avoid persecution. Why they were considered "alien" others is not quite clear. They had their own language dialect, which could have made them different enough to be ostracized. Nevertheless, they clearly developed their own identity and wished to remain free. "The freedom they cherish is an all-encompassing liberty that means far more than their independence from a political government or a system of economics. It is a freedom of the spirit, a freedom to be their own people, and it is the very essence of their being," quoted from Creating Pa nDau Applique: A New Approach to an Ancient Art Form. Finally, they settled in the hill country of Burma, Laos, Thai, and Vietnam, to farm and live as they desired. The hill country was hard to navigate, so the Hmong people were mostly left alone. They would clear a piece of land and farm it until the nutrients were stripped and then move to a new piece of land. This meant that sometimes they had to walk a long way from their village to work the land, even camping there overnight sometimes. This isolation worked for them until the 1950s when Communism came to China and the increasing ease of travel opened up the hill country to increasing traffic.

They wore distinctive dress and could even identify other families and clans at a distance by the design, cut, elaborate embroidery, and colors used for the headwear. Among the Hmong, costume as an important element of ethnic identity.

A smaller quilt I discovered at a friend's home depicting her family story.
A smaller quilt I discovered at a friend's home depicting her family story. | Source

Pictorial And Symbolic Stitchery To Record Family Lore

The Hmong people used their pictorial and symbolic stitchery to record family lore, which over the centuries, they became very skillful at. The symbols and style are slightly different for each of the clans. Their art is both functional art and representational. Most fascinating is the story cloths where the families can "tell" their family history in pictographs.

In the refugee camps of Thailand, it was discovered that the story clothes were a source of income as more and more Westerners and tourists offered to buy them. While in the camps, the men could not farm and therefore, feed their families, but the women continued to engage in their stitchery. Interestingly enough, it was the men, not the women, who drew the stories for the women to stitch. The stories included not only depictions of everyday life from the old days in the hills of Laos, but also folktales and stories of their escape to freedom. The anthropologist, James Spradley writes that cultures consist of three things, cultural behavior, cultural knowledge, and cultural artifacts. The Story quilts contain all three. The women with the knowledge and skill created quilts to sell out of their shared experiences and folktales. Interestingly, the Hmong women were uncharacteristically unconcerned about parting with their craft. It is the emerging generation that has derived more value in the story quilts they still own.

I have a profound interest in embroidery, as I have female ancestors on both sides who embroidered their way through great trials.

— Emil Ferris
A young girl posed for me in her family's traditional dress.
A young girl posed for me in her family's traditional dress. | Source

Traditional Story Clothes

In the United States, the Hmong women do not spend as much time on traditional story clothes because of increased employment and educational opportunities. Because of this, it has been a concern that emerging generations may lose the technique and desire to learn the traditional arts. However Eldrich Chang and Say Xiong are encouraged by this second generation of Hmong young people, who are returning to embrace the old skills such as the traditional Hmong flute: qeej, pronounced "kang," and the traditional Hmong New Year celebrations. This is propitious news, for the loss of this culture and art form would be a tragedy. Anthropologically, it would be wrong to ask this culture to remain static, for the creation of story quilts to never develop with the dynamic growth of the culture, but it would also be sad for the stories to discontinue altogether.

The beautiful way these skilled artisans captured their lives and their culture can be compared to the way Grandma Moses captured a time before the twentieth century in upstate New York. She didn’t use traditional perspective rules but in a "primitive way", she still pulled us into her world of quilting bees and making apple butter in the front yard. These story quilts do the same thing. The beholder is drawn in and wishes to know more, just as I did.

My Parents Were Born Over There

"My parents were born over there (Chang points) and came here in the '80s," Chang told me. According to Say Xiong and Eldrick Chang, the story quilt at the Fresno Adult School lobby contains a year in the life of a village in the hill country of Laos. The upper portion contains a tree with wild birds indigenous to the jungle areas of Laos. There are also delicate mountains stitched in line, and farm animals: chickens, pigs, and donkeys. At the top, there is a man working a mortar with his foot. The mortar was used to crack the dry hulls to free the rice for the family meal and even for the chickens to eat. Also at the top of the quilt are houses of the village.

Further down the cloth are villagers walking to the farm, which could be a long way away from the village. The men, women and children, all dressed alike, go together to the farm to work for the day. According to Chang, they would sometimes spend the night, essentially camping out. They seem to leave the village with empty baskets on their backs and on their donkey, but return with them filled with harvested produce. Throughout the quilt, you can see crops: rice planted in June through July and harvested in November; long beans planted in March and harvested in October; Banana palm, cucumbers, pumpkin, pineapple, corn, and something similar to yams.

In the upper right side, there is a rope hanging from a tree, which Xiong and Chang indicated was a New Year celebration. "An elder blesses the villagers as they walk clockwise five times and counter-clockwise four times, leaving bad luck and misfortune behind as they welcome the New Year filled with prosperity, good fortune, and health."

Girls in their beautiful unique traditional dress.
Girls in their beautiful unique traditional dress. | Source

Buy Your Own Traditional Hmong Story Quilt

You can still buy your own traditional Hmong Story Quilt for much less than you would think. They aren't priced like a small used car but noting the skill, talent and time, they should be. Buying one of these helps support the people both here in the US and some of those still relocated in refugee camps in Thailand and other places.


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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA

      Virginia Allain,

      I'm so glad you got something out of it. I think a special Story Quilt Show would be awesome, as long as someone was available to decipher some of the pictorials. They don't seem straight forward to those of us in Western culture. I loved looking at them and the intricate stitchwork. Thanks for commenting.



    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      12 months ago from Central Florida

      I'd love to see an exhibit of these beautiful story quilts and clothing. Your background information really helps to see how valuable this tradition is to the culture.


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