The Story of Hmong Batik
Batik is a resist dye technique created by wax drawn motifs. The technique has been practiced for over a thousand years from South America to Africa; Indonesia is accredited with its origin, due to Dutch trading. Traditionally, Hmong people use hemp as a base fabric. The batik design is used for clothing such as skirts and household items such as blankets.
This exhibition explores the culture behind the batik motifs of the Hmong people of Laos.
Featuring Mrs Zu and Mrs Zong of Ban Phahat, Xam Tai, Northern Laos.
Unlike many languages Hmong doesn’t have a written form, thus textiles have become a form of visual expression. The inspiration for batik motifs is derived from the natural environment, such as snail shells, animal teeth, ferns and cucumber and pumpkin seeds.
The meaning of Symbols
The night market in Luang Prabang displays a variety of designs; human figures stitched on cushion covers (reminiscent of Keith Haring drawings) are derived from protective symbols that children have stitched onto their clothing. Usually the human figures are holding hands, one represents a parent or ancestor whilst the other is the child itself. The spiral design represents a snail shell, but has no other symbolic meaning. Star motifs are stars whilst animal motifs are used to represent the birth animal of children, depending on the year a person is born this animal will protect them through life.
High in the mountains of Northern Laos the not so familiar sounds of Hmong weaving can be heard. With the hemp harvest finished in October, the yarns are being prepared and weaving has begun.
Like all textile producers in Laos, the Hmong make items for the household, for clothing and for ceremonial purposes. Traditionally the fabric of choice would be hemp. Nowadays, as they move down from the highlands, many Hmong use cotton or synthetic fabrics. However hemp is still cultivated by many ‘Blue’ Hmong in Northern Laos. Making hemp fabric is a laborious process, the end result is a strong durable cloth with the qualities similar to linen.
What is hemp used for?
- Daily Clothing – trousers, shirts, jackets, head scarves, hats, protective leggings, belts and shoes.
- Household Items – Blankets, bags, string.
- Ceremonial Use – Funeral clothing, and new year’s clothing: highly decorative jackets, skirts, trousers, sashes and shoes. Strips of fabric as banners in shamanic practices.
Hemp comes from the cannabis sativa plant, just one of several different varieties of cannabis. Most people are familiar with the rasta and indica varieties which are known universally as marijuana, derived from the Mexican slang. Both these varieties are high (all puns intended) in THC, the active ingredient needed to get ‘high’. Cannabis varieties that contain THC are illegal in Laos and many other countries.
Hemp does not contain THC. It has been cultivated the world over for more than 12,000 years. The latin name for hemp, sativa, means useful. Hemp can be used as fuel, cloth, paper, food, oil, rope, sail canvas and many other useful things. It is widely regarded as the crop for the future as it has such a low environmental impact. It can be grown and processed without the chemical treatments needed for other plant materials and gives three times as much raw fibre as cotton. Oil made from the seeds can be burned as fuel and has fewer emissions than petroleum. BMW is currently experimenting with hemp.
Hemp facts from www.naih.org
The cloth is scored in a grid making it easier to draw the symmetrical patterns. Bees’ wax is collected from the forests, heated in small metal pots and mixed with indigo paste (which colours the wax and makes it easier to see on the cloth). Bamboo pens with metal nibs are used for drawing the wax onto the hemp. The wax marks will resist the dye when the cloth is dipped in the indigo pot and left to dry. To achieve dark shades of blue and black a cloth is dyed more than 40 times over a period of two weeks. When the cloth is drying in the sun, care must be taken that the wax doesn’t melt. After the last dye bath has been completed, the cloth is boiled to remove the wax. The batik process is finished. Bold designs in white cloth are set against shades of blue or black indigo.
Making a Skirt
The batik motif is the basis for red cotton appliqu� and colourful embroidery. If the wearer desires a long skirt, two pieces of hemp are stitched together. When the embellishment of the skirt length is finished it is gathered up, concertina style creating a folded tubular garment. A skirt can take up to 5 or 6 months to make, around 40 years ago a woman could sell a skirt for 3 or 4 silver coins.
Mother to Daughter
Batik and embroidery skills are passed down mother to daughter. Girls first learn to embroider, followed by appliqu� and finally batik. Like many women in Laos, a girl’s success in getting married will depend upon her skills with a needle, shuttle or in the case of batik a pen. A girl can marry as young as 13 and then the responsibility of teaching is transferred to her mother-in-law.
The Hmong People are thought to originate from the plains of Tibet and Mongolia, moving southwards through China. According to Lao records they started arriving here in the early 19th Century. There are a three sub groups the ‘White’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Striped’ Hmong distinguishable by their clothing. White Hmong don’t practice batik therefore their skirts contain plain white bands of hemp on which they embroider. Blue Hmong practice indigo resist batik; their skirts are decorated with this fabric. Striped Hmong have bands of fabric stitched on the sleeves of jackets. It is estimated that Hmong people make up 6.9% of the Lao population (1995 census). Hmong people speak a language called Hmong, which is classified as a Miao-Yien language in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, and until recently had no written text.
Nomads in the mountains
Hmong villages were traditionally found at high altitude usually 1000-1500m above sea level. The houses are one storey with a grass roof almost sloping to the floor. It is usual for more than one generation of an extended family to live in each house. Hmong farmers practice swidden agriculture, a system of farming that requires villages to move and find more furtile land during the fallow period. Hmong culture is very strong, even now when they move down to the lowlands their villages systems are kept intact. In Luang Prabang the Hmong communities can be found at Ban Couer Teenung; the first bridge on the road south to Vientiane.
Warding off bad spirits
Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits. At ceremonies the shaman may advise the patient to stitch symbols onto their clothes to keep the offending spirit at bay. Most children have their birth animal and human spirit stitched onto the back of their jacket.
Calling the spirits
Each village has a number of shamans, both men and women. A shaman is chosen by their ability to problem solve through divination or hosting a spirit in their body. To host a spirit the shaman places a blindfold over their head and lights candles on the spirit altar. The shaman uses specially crafted tools to call a spirit; a ring placed on the thumb and a metal hoop with loosely hanging coins. Someone else at the ceremony beats a gong, whilst the shaman calls the spirit by singing a repetitive song and shaking the hoop. At the point when the spirit enters the body the shaman jumps into the air and lands on a specially prepared wooden bench. The shaman now talks with the spirit through chanting and simultaneously jumping up and down. When the spirit leaves the body the shaman slumps to the floor. The hoop falls and the coins land either face up or down. The shaman now consults the placement of the coins and together with the instructions from the spirit directs the patient on how to solve the problem.
The Hmong only have one festival at New Year called Nor Phe Chao. The festival falls on the first new moon in a 12-moon cycle. In a western calendar it falls intermittently in either December or January. The festival lasts up to 7 days, bringing people together from many villages, and it is here that couples are paired off. A game called pov pob is played where girls and boys stand in rows throwing a ball to one another, much frivolity takes place and by the end of the week many future couplings have been decided.
Getting Married Today
Traditionally men could have more than one wife, but today monogamy is the norm. The path to marriage starts after New Year, when the boy takes the girl to stay with his family for three days. If all goes well the boy’s family will go and talk to the girl’s family, dressed in their best traditional clothing to negotiate the dowry, which the boy’s family needs to pay. Once both sides agree, a date is chosen and a party is planned.
At birth it is essential that the placenta is buried under the house as at death the spirit of the deceased needs to find his or her suit. This practice is very important to Hmong and has caused many incidents with re-located Hmong in foreign countries.
Every Hmong has a suit of beautiful clothing that has been prepared especially for their funeral. The clothing will never have been worn before. Women devote many hours of needlework in embellishing the front panels and collars of jackets. Superstition amongst the Blue Hmong dictates that whilst still living the collars of their daily jackets must be turned inwards so as not to tempt fate with too much beautiful adornment. At death the corpse is dressed in the specially made outfit, including shoes that will aide in the flight to heaven and walk through the land of worms. The corpse is placed on a wooden stand made to resemble a horse, each leg of the horse is held in place with hemp string and the corpse is tied to the horse with this string also. Some Hmong tie the fingers of the corpse together so they won’t be able to stop in one of the afterworlds and help the ancestors prepare food. The final afterworld has a door, on the other side of the door lies a land of worms that must be traversed. Once crossed the deceased is in heaven.
Thank you to the weavers of Ban Phahat, Ban Keobokur, Ban Piengmai, Ban Nong Haet of Houaphanh and Xieng Khouang Provinces for welcoming us and sharing your stories. A special thank you to Mrs Surseo of Ban Pou Longtai for coming out of batik retirement and making the detailed pieces for this exhibition. Mr Cha and Mrs Jit, thank you for leading us on the amazing journey to Ban Phahat, one of the most interesting villages we found whilst doing our research. The Jim Thompson Foundation for your generous support. To Mr.Somchan for your time and skill translating this text to Lao. Caroline Gaylard for editing the text. Most importantly, to all the Hmong people for your wonderful textiles, we hope this exhibition promotes interest in hemp batik and will help engender the longevity of your craft.
The information in this exhibition only touches upon Hmong culture. There is still so much to research, understand, and explain; please ask our staff if you have any questions regarding this exhibition. There is a small collection of books available to peruse and visits to the nearby Hmong villages of Long Lao and Ban Phou Longtai can be arranged with the Luang Prabang Tourism Office.