Mother hemp


Hemp harvested in Ha Giang, local dyeing plants

Vang Thi Mai Batik Workshop
Ha Giang Cooperative of artisans and peasants women 

In collaboration with Vang Thi Mai Workshop, Spin Asia - Sustainable Product Innovation Project - & Pham Van Tinh Pad-Printing Workshop, Ha Giang, Hanoi - VI

A legend tells that during the migration of hmong people to the west of the Guizhou mountains, Lan Juan used colored threads so as to memorize her route. As she crossed the Yellow River, she started embroidered her own clothes with a yellow thread. Later, as she crossed the blue Yangtze River, she embroidered her clothes with blue thread. Once she walked through the mountains and the valleys, she added marks and points symbolizing what she found on her way, and also embroidered objects as she passed by.  At the end of her journey, her clothes were embroidered from head to toe.

One day, a butterfly emerged from a sacred maple tree. Fertilized by a water bubble, it became pregnant and layed twelve eggs. A bird took care of its eggs until the eggs finally hatched. They gave life to a dragon, a buffalo, a snake, an elephant, a tiger, to the god of thunder, as well as some phenomena like disasters, calamities and ghosts. An egg  also gave birth to Jiang Yang, the first Hmong man who created his people. 

The Hmong textile and craft culture appears as a palimpsest of these embroidered symbols used in legends and stories that are told orally from mother to daughter. Applied to garment, this Hmong “alphabet” protects the person wearing it.

For instance, the eight-pointed star is connected to the weaver and evokes the toothed wheel used in old looms. The cattle symbolizes ancestor worship. The butterfly refers to the multiple metamorphosis of Mother Butterfly: after becoming immortal, she goes on to live on the moon where she receives the souls of the dead whom she reincarnates. The bird symbolizes the link between man and the celestial world: after his death, man is considered a bird-soul with which the shaman can establish contact. 

The flower is a tribute to nature wards off sickness. The swastika represents light and fertility. The dragon refers to the awakening of Spring as well as respect. When their death comes, a Hmong who has shown an exemplary life turns into a dragon.

Hemp has always been a cornerstone of Hmong culture, and is used from housing construction to clothing. But hemp is becoming increasingly rare. In Viet markets, all sorts of local products made from hemp have been replaced by acrylic textiles, imitating the jewels and traditional hmong clothes. In remaining hemp production workshops, there is often too little awareness regarding the loss of hemp culture, and how it leads to cultural dispossession for Hmong people. With this project led by Spin, the goal was for Hmong and Dao populations to revitalize hemp culture, to foster the reappropriation of ancestral and manual traditions. My role was to study the production of local hemp to understand its role in Hmong culture, in Tram Kim and Nam Dam villages, and to propose concrete solutions and tools to facilitate such reappropriations.

I collected all the symbols that the craftswomen show me, I tried to transcribe them with the help of my translator. Back in Hanoï, I visited Pham Van Tinh Pad-printing workshop. Pham Van Tinh was awarded "Hand of Gold Artisan" for his accuracy and meticulousness. Our encounter led to a series of carved cherry wood stamps. Each stamp displays one of the millennial symbols of Hmong culture and, at the same time, these stamps can be combined in new ways to create new patterns on traditional clothing like batiks. This project is a work of proofreading, sampling and questioning, more than a commemoration, because Hmong culture is alive and still constantly moving.