Tuesday, October 19, 2010


 my english paper. whatcha think?
Hmong Story Cloths

Hmong story cloths are a culturally unique art form of beautiful tapestries used to tell a story about the Hmong people. These cloths can tell stories, represent the everyday life of the Hmong people in their home country, Laos, or portray an idea held in common by the creators. The practice of making these cloths is carried out mostly by women and has been developing and being passed down for many years in the Hmong culture. It is unique because very few other cultures have long, intricate sewn pictures of things that have happened to them or their family. Therefore, the tapestries are very highly valued not only in Hmong culture, but all over the world. There are many in the United States, brought by the refugees to tell their story, or made here to further convey and record their messages.  Reading or translating these cloths can be difficult because outside cultures differ so much in their usual medium of passing down information and cannot understand the symbols and styles. Cloths are often still made today for Hmong weddings as gifts for the bridge and grooms’ families to exchange, or to be used in memorial at funerals.
                Story cloths evolved from other art practiced by the Hmong people such as needlework or works of art called “paj ntaub” (Peterson 6). Paj ntaub is an old form of Hmong art meaning ‘flower cloth’, and it was the needlework-made clothing worn by the Hmong people to identify their cultural status. Paj ntaub originated from a time when women and girls of the family would make all the clothes for everyone. Each household started to create their own style and eventually had set colors and symbols associated with them.  Story cloths started to become apparent in American starting in the 1970’s. The textiles were originally made in refugee camps by families to sell to support themselves. Without these highly valued textiles, they would’ve had no income. The cloths are still highly valued, even more so in some cases because of the works’ increasing value with age.
                Story cloths are usually created by women. However, the idea and design for the work of art can come from anyone. The design is made by free hand by an artist, and the work usually contains some written words explaining the picture. The sewing is a long and delicate process often taken care of by multiple women because of the immensity of the project. Artists start learning the way of the needlework very young and take a long time to develop enough to meet the harsh standards held by those who will judge it. The stitches are scrutinized by the more experienced artists and every detail must be perfect. The stitches are scrutinized by more experienced artists and every detail must be beautiful and perfect. Texture is often integrated by weaving different types of materials. Skilled seamstresses are very highly respected in their communities because of their rare and skilled crafts.
                Artists almost never sign their work, but their style can be a distinguished signature for a trained eye. Story cloths can range from small three-inch squares to massive projects 110 x 90 inches. (McCall 13)Interpreting story cloths is also a sort of art because the viewer has to decide for themselves what the cloth means to tell and what feelings it’s trying to get across. They may have past, present, and future in the cloths because they are representative, and not supposed to be an exact picture of anything going on at one specific time, unlike almost all similar works of art from other cultures and eras. There are many themes and different items traditionally made into cloths. Often depicted in the cloths are everyday situations in Hmong life, animals and plants, agriculture, relationships between families or cultures, hardships, religious things, rites of passage, and other events such as war or marriage. An interesting note is that there are very few story cloths showing opium poppies even though it was very commonly grown (Peterson).
                It can be quite difficult to a person unfamiliar with the Hmong culture or their various art forms to decipher the intricate patterns and scenes on a story cloth. However, these cloths are still held at high value in many places outside Southeast Asia. The Hmong who are familiar with the cloths or make them themselves judge the art based on its ability to tell the truth and accurately portray its idea.  Some cloths come with written interpretations in Hmong, English, or many other languages to convey the message more easily. Captions are seen very frequently on works if the artist wants to be understood more easily.
                Hmong style works of art such as paj ntaub and story cloths are highly valued and studied because of their delicate stitches, unique designs, and interesting stories behind them.  The techniques have been passed won through Hmong families for generations, always sticking to the traditions of women always doing the sewing, even though some men know how to do it properly. Things similar to story cloths have been found in other places around the world, but the Hmong have the most specialized, unique form. The artists and their works of art are valued very highly in their community. Their beautiful illustrations will forever remind the world of the everyday life, folktales, and traditions of the Hmong people

Works Cited
Peterson, Sally. Translating Experience and the Reading of a Story Cloth. American Folklore Society.  March 1988. http://www.jstor.org/stable/540246n. pp. 6-22 . Internet. JSTOR.
McCall, Aba A. More than a Pretty Cloth: Teaching Hmong History and Culture Through Textile Art. Theory and Research in Social Education. Spring 1977. pp137-67. Journal. JSTOR.