Hmong “Paj Ntaub” (“Flower Cloth”) consists of many forms of needlework, particularly cross stitch and embroidery. The designs are usually geometric with bold colors and typically represents certain things in nature. Due to the Hmong language being mainly a spoken one, we have “story cloths” that tell of our history and cultural practices. The written language that is used today was developed by missionaries who lived among the Hmong and created a written system using the Romanized Popular Alphabet (the same as the English language).
After the US withdrew during the Vietnam War, Hmong people who aided the US CIA were prosecuted, leading to a large exodus from Laos mainly to Thailand refugee camps prior to being naturalized in other countries. During this time, “Paj Ntaub” was a popular way to earn money and with time to spare in the camps, the production increased greatly. The Kansas Historical Society has a good quick overview of the history of the Hmong and “Paj Ntaub.” The camps are now closed and those who relocated to the US are living life styles that do not leave much time to continue these works of art. Although there are a few who still hand make their items, many designs are on the rise made from mass production. Rarely do you find authentic hand-made items nowadays.
With a little history of “Paj Ntaub” out of the way, I’d like to add that my father’s family descended from Yunnan, China and my mother’s from Laos. They met and started a family in one of the Thailand refugee camps where I was also born to them. Growing up here in America, my mother use to always spend her free time making “Paj Ntaub.” In the Hmong culture, the New Year’s Festival is a huge event that typically takes place after harvest where young single adults can mingle and display their tribal ancestry and wealth via their clothing. The intricate designs of their clothing usually implies a level of capability and intelligence in the person and the family wearing them. Typically the mother or daughter will hand make her own outfit and display it at the festival. All outfits are given to the daughter as dowry when she marries. My mother’s mother was killed during the exodus so she never really had the opportunity to indulge in such traditions, thus she was always persistent on her own daughters having Hmong outfits.
She taught me and my sisters how to make “Paj Ntaub” and I recall hating it because it was tedious repetitive work. I recall hating how bright the colors were and despised wearing them to the festivals because I didn’t want the neighbors to see us and think us weird. But as I grew up, I started to understand the value behind the stitches and the rich history and culture hidden in the seams. I am now glad my mother taught me and it is now something I love most about being Hmong. “Paj Ntaub” is beautiful; it’s intricate; it’s rich; it’s living history and art. It has been a big goal of mine to revive this art and to continue its presence in clothing we wear today, not only in our traditional wear but modern as well.
Currently, I am working on a couple cross-stitching pieces and plan to use them on outfits I have planned for my baby girl. Keep following for the later finished results!
If you want to follow along, all you need is embroidery thread, embroidery needles, aida cloth, and scissors!