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Paj Ntaub - Kansas Folk Art

May Thao, May Her Thao, and Shoua Xiong, Paj Ntaub, Master Artists

Dia Her, Phoua Her, Sae Her, Zang Her, Ah Vang, and Ying Vang, Apprentices

Hmong story clothThe Hmong are one of many ethnic groups that can be traced to the mountains of southern China. Their cultures include stories of a homeland where the people wore furs and the bears were white in color, causing some to speculate that they may have come from Siberia. Others cultural stories say they may have come from western Mongolia. Paj ntaub (pronounced "pan dau") means "flower cloth" and is produced by Hmong artists. The patterns, symbolic to Hmong culture, come from forms in nature. (More on Hmong story cloth.)

Regardless of their precise point of origin, we do know that the Hmong in China were pushed into more and more inhospitable lands with the growth of the Han Chinese civilization. There existed a constant level of hostility between these two groups and the Chinese launched large military campaigns against the Hmong. The Hmong were eventually subdued by the Chinese government, but peace was often broken by periodic rebellions. The last major rebellions in China occurred in the 1860s. This rebellion and its aftermath resulted in an exodus of Hmong into nations to the south.

Hmong first migrated into the northern section of what is now Vietnam. There they defeated government troops and came close to toppling the monarchy, before being defeated in several key battles. From there they flowed into Laos, Thailand, and Burma. Prior to the Vietnam War it was estimated that there were 4 million Hmong in China; 200,000 in Laos; 60,000 in Thailand; 40,000 in Vietnam; and 15,000 in Burma.

During the most recent war in Southeast Asia many of the Hmong were enlisted to fight on the side of the Americans. With the fall of Laos in 1975 many Hmong found themselves in refugee camps in Thailand. Since then many have immigrated to the United States.

Although the Hmong recognize themselves as being members of the same ethnic and cultural group, it should not be assumed that they are a homogeneous group. There are many subdivisions among the Hmong. Among these are the Black, Blue/Green, White, Striped, Flowery, and Red Hmong. Each of these divisions is distinguished from the others by a distinctive style of dress. Most of the Hmong in the Unite sd States are either Blue or White since these were most heavily represented in Laos. There are also small numbers of Flowery, Striped, and Black Hmong, although they seem to be most strongly concentrated in California and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Kansas City the blue Hmong are the majority.

Hmong textile art is without a doubt the most well known of all their art forms. The brilliant colors and fine workmanship are present in the small squares known as paj ntaub. The story of Hmong textiles can only be known through a study of traditional clothing, primarily that of Hmong women. The clothing of the women shows a much greater degree of inter-ethnic variation. It is through the dress of the women that Hmong can most completely identify the affiliation of other Hmong.

In general the clothing of Blue Hmong women is more elaborate. The most characteristic feature is the skirt. The skirt is knee length and is made of hemp or cotton. The former material, which is preferred, is usually woven by the Hmong themselves on back strap looms. The entire bolt of cloth is then batiked with geometric designs using beeswax and indigo dye. The Hmong are the only people on the mainland of Southeast Asia known to practice batiking. Not all Hmong batik. White Hmong, for instance, do not practice any form of resist dyeing.

The central portion of the skirt is batiked. It is topped with a band of solid colored cloth, usually blue or white in color. The bottom of the skirt is trimmed with a highly decorated band of cloth. This usually has a red or white background, which is then covered with cross-stitch and red appliqué. The bottom edge then has a strip of white cloth sewn on. The entire skirt is accordion pleated and fixed into place with herringbone stitches. Because of the pleating, one skirt takes about 10 yards of material.

The jacket is usually made of black indigo dyed cotton or, at times, velvet. The jackets usually are embroidered around the neck and along the edges running down the front. At times the cuffs are embroidered as well or may be of blue material.

There is a small square collar attached to the back of the jacket, resembling an abbreviated sailor collar. The underside of the collar is decorated with cross-stitch or small appliquéd squares arranged into a geometric pattern. When asked why the carefully embroidered design is sewn on face down, most Hmong will say that they have no explanation but that it simply was always done this way. There is a story, however, that the Hmong at one time had a written language, which was outlawed by the Chinese. The Hmong wanted to preserve the history of their people so they concealed their writing by converting it into abstract patterns, which they hid under their collars.

The collars of the White Hmong women's jackets are among the high points of Hmong textile art. These hang as small rectangles in the back, as is true of Blue Hmong collars. A key difference, however, is that the White Hmong place the embroidery on the top of the collar. The White Hmong also do not confine themselves to cross-stitch and simple appliqué, but employ a very sophisticated form of reverse appliqué. This technique is only employed by certain Hmong tribes and the Indians living in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Cloth is cut in designs and piled one layer on top of the other to build up a pattern. The finished product is then decorated with embroidery to make the final effect. A White Hmong woman will make a number of these collars, which she will then exchange on her jacket at different times. The White Hmong collar is the foundation of the squares most commonly sold in the West as paj ntaub.

The art of the Hmong has always been in a state of transition and flux. As the Hmong became more widely dispersed, their art evolved along different lines, resulting in a range of regional types. Although the Hmong have had exposure to various cultures throughout their history, the degree of penetration has been highly regulated by ethnic barriers. All of this changed, however, with the flight of Hmong from their homes in Laos. One factor that brought about a change was the growing effect of the market on Hmong art. Through the market the work of the Hmong has come under the control of people not of their cultural heritage.

The first effect came shortly after being brought to refugee camps in Thailand. Thai officials, eager to reduce the cost of maintenance, allowed missionaries into the camps with their own programs. The missionaries were eager to find new ways to finance their activities and saw Hmong needlework as a viable commercial product. Traditionally most of the work was placed on clothing of a type that westerners would be unlikely to buy. The missionaries, therefore, sought to encourage production of more salable items, such as pot holders and bedspreads. Since marketing works most easily if one can produce a consistent product of a set type, the missionaries also sought to standardize the work of the women.

Needless to say, the efforts of the missionaries have resulted in substantial reduction in the creativity of a great deal of Hmong art. Although technically perfect, the work lacks the originality of the more traditional forms. Missionaries also have encouraged the production of an entirely new form of art, the so called "story cloth." This is an embroidered wall hanging that is purely representational in nature. Typically these depict village scenes or the war.

There are two forces that have allowed the Hmong to maintain a higher degree of integrity in their needlework in the United States. The first of these is that many of the women learned to make paj ntaub at a very early age. For this reason they can draw upon their traditional knowledge. The first wave of immigrants also came to this country before they were exposed to the long-term programs of the missionaries. This kept them from being less conscious of the tricks of the trade of the marketplace.

This is not to say, however, that they remained aloof from outside influences. Hmong women in America produce paj ntaub primarily for sale. Money brought in from this source is a major supplement to the incomes of many Hmong families. for this reason Hmong women have not been immune to the comments and buying habits of the American public. Refugee workers also have given their opinions concerning the most desirable colors and designs.

Another effect of immigration has been the blurring of traditional boundaries as Hmong from different backgrounds have come to live in close proximity to each other. For example, most of the Hmong in Kansas City are Blue Hmong and did not produce the reverse appliqué most commonly found in commercial paj ntaub. The Hmong noticed that Americans were only buying reverse appliqué. They assumed that this was because the public only wanted this style. In truth, the buying public had never been exposed to Hmong batik. Whatever the reason, the Blue Hmong in Kansas City learned how to make appliqué from their White Hmong neighbors. Of course, one result of this emphasis on appliqué is that the batik designs have had relatively little influence from the outside.

While needlework is now often produced for outsiders and is rarely worn except at festivals, it is still an important symbol of Hmong identity. The demise of traditional paj ntaub would eliminate one of the most important tools for the continuation of the Hmong as a definite ethnic group.

From Celebrate Kansas Folk Arts © KSHS 1993

Entry: Paj Ntaub - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: May 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.