World Heritage Day: Celebrating the Hmong!

Today on World Heritage Day, we at Artistri Sud are celebrating the rich legacy of cultural traditions in Vietnam. As an organization dedicated to building sustainable and local businesses, many of the women we work with make a living from traditional occupations. Our operations in Vietnam cater mainly to the Black Hmong minority in Lao Cai province, a tribe that specialize in a complex form of traditional textile art — paj ntaub— using stitching, reverse-stitching and reverse applique.

Black Hmong

Prior to the 19th Century, the Hmong peoples were concentrated in China, where they were forced to assimilate into Chinese culture, forbidden to use their native and written language. To preserve their culture, language and freedom, the Hmong women began to sew these symbols onto their skirts, coding their messages to disguise their meanings from oppressors. The techniques used in Hmong embroidery have been passed from generation to generation, down to the modern-day, becoming the main form of Hmong expression and identity. While war and persecution have geographically dispersed the Hmong, the survival of their embroidery is a source of pride, representing the strength of their culture. 

We work mainly with the Black Hmong in Lao Cai province near Sapa. Their name originates from the rich, dark indigo colour from a native plant they repeatedly use to dye their clothing. Typically, they do not rinse the fabric out before wearing it to maintain the dark colour, which is a source of complaint for tourists (the indigo can stain clothing), but the Hmong prize this rich colour so deeply, so do not see this as a bad thing!

These beautiful geometric patterns all carry specific symbolic meanings. For example, the snail is a symbol of family growth and interrelatedness. The center of the shell’s coil symbolizes dead ancestors, while the outer spirals are successive generations. The double snail shell represents the union of two families and also symbolizes the spinning motion used in many spiritual chants. Thus the embroidered patterns take on a double meaning — to decorate and to communicate. 


Traditionally, Hmong embroidered clothes are made every year in time for the lunar new year (Tet). Because the garments are crafted to communicate a stage in an owner’s life, no two jackets or skirts can be the same and it is perceived as bad luck to wear clothes from the previous year. For Tet, Hmong women will design a combination of symbols in embroidery to bring them good fortune. For example, if a woman is looking for a husband, you will see a Fish Hook pattern on her skirt. If a new couple wants to start a family, you might see the symbol of a house representing unity, combined with the Leaf Frond to signify growth. If an elderly person is sick and near the end of their life, they will likely wear patterns related to the spirit and ancestral world. These clothes serve as an indicator of a woman’s creativity, skill and even propensity as a successful wife. In fact, the women we work with told us that Hmong women must know how to make a full suit before they can be eligible to be married because a key duty for women in the family is to make the traditional clothing for all family members.

After Tet, the Hmong retire last year’s outfit to be worn on slightly less important events, until the clothes are eventually recycled into other products — purses, cushion covers, wallhangings. Eventually, they may be sold to tourists, if they’re lucky!

Artistri Sud is dedicated to building futures and saving pasts. Thank you for supporting our mission and allowing us to empower hundreds of women every year, whilst preserving their heritage. The more support we receive for this mission, the more effective the results. Donate here to support our goals and help talented but marginalised women. Any donations will be greatly appreciated and make a huge impact on our operations.