Hmong Applique & Flower Cloths

Elephant Footprint Flower Cloth

Hmong Flowercloth with elephant footprint design, stairs, and seeds, Chue Thao, 2018

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.

Hmong Tiger Legend Storycloth

Hmong Tiger Legend Storycloth, Pai Vang, 1985

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.

Snail Design Purse

Purse with traditional Snail Design, Chue Thao, 2018

Vocabulary Words: 
  • paj ntaub (flower cloths): (pronounced Pan-Dow). A textile technique which combines embroidery and reverse appliqué techniques. Traditionally, these fabrics have geometric patterns that symbolize specific meanings. (From Visual Culture)
  • applique: ornamental needlework in which pieces of fabric are sewn or stuck onto a large piece of fabric to form pictures or patterns
  • embroidery: the art of working raised and ornamental designs in threads of silk, cotton, gold, silver, or other material, upon any woven fabric, leather, paper, etc., with a needle.
  • The Secret War: The Laotian Civil War(1959–75). A civil war between Communest Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government. It is associated with the Cambodian Civil War and the Vietnam war. During this war, many Hmong were persecuted as "traitors" because of their support of Americans in the Vietnam war, as well as persecuted for recieving additional aid from China in the Vietnam and Chinese conflict (From Wikipedia
  • story cloths: Hmong needlecraft on a flat textile surface using traditional designs and depicting a scene, event or narrative from Hmong history or culture. (From City of Pella)