Hmong Applique & Flower Cloths
Because the Hmong language was not alphabetized until the 1950s, their history was recorded in other ways. Hmong women created paj ntaub, or flower cloths, that use geometric designs to pass stories to their children. Each design has a meaning related to Hmong history and culture. The geometric designs are created by cutting and layering fabrics that are then sewn in a reverse applique technique. Flower cloths are often embellished with embroidery.
Traditionally, these flower cloths were applied to regalia worn during courtship festivals, baby-carriers, and men’s collars as decoration. Overtime, Flower Cloths transformed into the primary way of communicating Hmong Culture and history between and among the people and over generations.
In the 1960’s, a 15 year long (1959-1975) civil war in Laos between communists and the Royal Lao government resulted in a mass exodus of the Hmong people out of Laos. After the communist victory, Hmong rebels sought to fight the new government with the aid of American troops who sought to dismantle the communist regime in an effort to eliminate the chance of a second Vietnam war. During what is now known as The Secret War Hmong people provided refuge for many American troops, resulting in the prosecution of Hmong people as traitors.
To counter the patchy and broken history of the Hmong culture lost without a written language, Hmong refugees created what are called story cloths in order to record and express the rich, devastating, and expansive history and culture of the Hmong people. These Story Cloths brought change in textile styles, ranging several square feet. The Hmong incorporated symbols and figures in their cloths which represented specific events, people, and history in narrative form. These stories were then passed down from generation to generation, primarily through the matriline.
In the Thai refugee camps, Hmong people began to sell their Flower Cloths across seas, producing items like bedspreads and purses which were then shipped worldwide. The men in the camp created illustrations for the folktales which represented the traumatic events of their exodus. These traded goods held within their folds the profound memories and narratives of the Hmong’s experiences of war, refuge, and hardship.