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Needlework and Clothing at the Hmong-American Friendship Association
At the Hmong American Friendship Association we were met by a women named Seng Lo. She’s lived in Milwaukee for over twenty years by now. She told us the Hmong American Friendship Association is so named because Hmong and American people work there and because everyone helps each other and, in doing so, learn each other’s language.
When I got to HAFA, I thought the vast, enormous building would be all fancy and filled with the flowery smell of funny incense that makes your nostrils quiver. But, gee, was I wrong! Sure, it was big but it was definitely NOT fancy. It was cool!
We walked into a room with the biggest story cloth I’ve ever seen: six feet high and eight or more feet long. That is taller and much wider than me!
The first room we went to was the sewing room. Old grandmas were sitting in there, cutting out paper.
Seng Lo told us about the story cloth. It had a teacher and a little boy or girl. It looked like the little boy or girl was going to get hit.
Seng Lo guided us through the museum. It was cool because they had lots of things like the rice mill…, shamanism stuff like the horns, money and bells and stuff like that. Then we moved on and she talked about the rice grinder…and some blacksmith stuff. There were knives, a gun they used to use to kill animals and a crossbow. The crossbow was for shooting birds in Laos (the crossbow was probably the most useful thing to use).
We moved on and saw the enormous and most beautiful, brightly colored Hmong women’s clothes. In the gift shop there were so many cool designs, I couldn’t believe my eyes because there were so many bright colors. The designs on the clothes were marvelous and hand made.
Sheng Lo said you could tell if someone is white or black Hmong by their clothes because they each wear different clothes.
Emma put on the Hmong clothes. I think she was happy, I could tell by the smile on her face. Then some of the other girls got into the Hmong clothes. I think they were happy like Emma because of the smiles. Everybody looked like they were having fun. I was glad they were happy.
In the first display case were things a shaman (Hmong doctor) would use like goat horns (used to see if the shaman made a successful journey to the spirit world), cymbals and gongs that the shaman’s assistant uses to make the shaman’s army stronger to fight the evil spirits, and a split, doughnut-like thing the shaman uses to see if he has caught and returned the spirit back to the body.
There were Hmong clothes that people used to wear in Laos. The cloths were old fashioned with many designs on them. There were corn leaves used for wrapping things up. There were pictures of the Hmong people leaving Laos and heading for the United States, gardening, playing games, doing needlework and just looking at the camera.
There were hollow rings with bells inside them, used when the shaman gallops off to the spirit world. The bells jingle pretty loudly.
There was also a Hmong soldier’s uniform and boots from the CIA (secret) war. Sadly, there were many young soldiers and many of them died.
There was a rice grinder which is just a bowl with a big fat stick in it because there were no machines to do it for them.
There were also big silver necklaces. Every girl should have one.
The bow and arrow was practically made of wood alone, including the arrows! The girl’s necklace looked like silver and gold. I wonder how much it cost? I bet it probably cost a whole lot of money, or maybe I am wrong, maybe they cost less.
There were Hmong rifles filled with black powder, knives and even Hmong mouse traps!!! Last but not least there was a cool Hmong violin with a big dragon head and red eyes!”
Hmong women always carried their babies on their backs using only very tough rags that were sewn together.
A story cloth is a “quilt” woven by the Hmong women to represent their journey and culture to other people. For example, we have a story cloth in our classroom showing everyday life in Laos before the Vietnam War. Another example is being displayed at the Hmong American Friendship Association in Milwaukee. This story cloth shows [the journey] from life in Laos to the new life in America.
Story cloths are kind of a mixture of books, tapestries, and quilts. They have pictures, look like blankets, and are hung on walls. They remind the Hmong people of Laos, family, the hard journey, and life here in America—hardships, losses, kindness, and hope for a better life here. Story cloths tell of many things us Americans don’t understand. They have maps, traditions, ways of traveling, places in Laos, loved objects, and memories and stories from long ago. They’re like books, only without the hard-cover beneath the cloth, no words, either—just pictures, cloth, and memory.
These special things are made in Laos, Thailand, China, refugee camps, and here in America. Often, there is a mountain design border near the edge. In the middle, there are pictures. Traditional animals are often there: pigs, cows, roosters and bulls. One of the things I found interesting was the size of them. Most of them are rather small, a few are medium, but a couple of them are HUGE! The largest one I saw was 5 by 8 feet. The bigger it is, the more story it contains. On this huge story cloth there were stages, villages, oceans, animals, and much more. It showed Hmong buildings, soldiers, air crafts, people fleeing, and the Mekong River. The Mekong River was a large stretch of water that the Hmong people from Laos had to cross to get into Thailand, where they would be safe. But enemy soldiers guarded the shores. If they caught you, they would shoot you.
When we got off the bus to go inside the Hmong American Friendship Association, all I saw was a small building with windows. I had no idea what a huge amount of Hmong culture would be inside.
We met Sheng Lo, the teacher of a sewing class. She showed us a huge story cloth, six feet wide and eight feet long. It was covered by plastic for protection. The story cloth showed four different places: China, Laos, Thailand, and America. It was divided in half by the Mekong River. The story was the history of the Hmong. First, it showed them escaping from China into Laos, where the cloth showed them farming and living a peaceful life. Then it showed the Americans coming and asking the Hmong to participate in the CIA “secret war”. Many Hmong were killed and many escaped into the jungle. They could spend years in the jungle, living on roots! [The cloth showed how] some Hmong finally escaped to the Mekong River, but only some. The Communists found out where they were hiding and poisoned the water that they drank. The story cloth shows people escaping across the Mekong in boats, or with bamboo under their arms, or swimming. Sheng Lo told us that a man drew the story cloth and a woman embroidered it.
At the Hmong American Friendship Association there is a 5 by 8 story cloth made by a 67-year-old woman who lives in Thailand. It showed all of the Laotian Hmong’s history—coming to Laos, their life before the Vietnam war, the CIA secret war, escaping Laos, crossing the Mekong River with Communist soldiers patrolling the bank, life in a Thai refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire, the buses to Bangkok, and a corner for modernized America.
It was amazing.
Kohler Art Center
We went to the Kohler Art Center on our quest for Hmong culture.
When we arrived at the Art Center, we were greeted by a wonderful lady named Lisa. She told us that 20 years ago, they had started an exhibit on Hmong art at a festival. That is what got Mr. Wagler (our teacher) interested in Hmong culture.
While we walked through the Kohler Art Center we saw a shoe display. The shoe I remember the most was the shoe with the alligator head in place of the toe. When we got to the back of the Center we looked at a whole lot of Hmong objects. A Hmong lady named Paulina and her two aunts showed us her Hmong objects that we actually got to touch and hold. We held a ball that is used in the ball toss game, a picture of some people in Laos, and a thing that is used to carry babies.
There was a baby carrier and Paulina demonstrated how to put it on. The strap goes over the mother’s shoulders, under the baby’s arms and then supports its behind. In Laos the mothers carried their babies everywhere with them.
There was also a baby hat that is supposed to protect the baby from the sun when the parents are working out in the fields. There was a New Years hat for a baby.
The hats women wear have colors that are bright and have many Hmong coins hanging off the hat so it’s touching your head. When I put one on its really up to my eyes so I can’t really see.
The clothes Hmong boys wear mostly black or white. It depends what kind of Hmong you are. If you’re green Hmong, you wear green sleeves. If you’re striped, you wear striped sleeves. It goes on and on.
We saw an incredibly strange story cloth that had words instead of pictures. Not a picture in sight!
There was a story cloth that ended in “and.” I wonder why it ended in an and. Maybe so it would let you finish the story or maybe it is continued someplace else or even maybe some sort of a tradition.
Story cloths are “quilts” that tell stories. The Hmong quilts are called paj ntaubs (pandaus). It means story cloths. Story cloths are made by hand by Hmong women. It’s very hard to make a story cloth by yourself. You need lots of help from elders.
Story cloths were the only way of passing on stories non-orally. Because there was no Hmong alphabet. They invented one in the 1900s.
Story cloths are a piece of needlework that tell a story through characters sewed onto cloth. We saw lots of story cloths on our tour. The largest was at the Hmong American Friendship Building. At the center in Green Bay, we saw a story cloth about the Hmong and Americans fighting the Vietnamese. At the Kohler Arts Center there was a story cloth about the ball toss game.
The most common border on a story cloth is the mountain pattern. It can be blue or purple, and the pattern is made by forming light and dark triangles. Another word for story cloth is paj ntaub (pandau).
The lady that was in charge of the exhibit told us that this “paj ntaub” has glittery parts because it was just a design and it was supposed to interest people. There is one that is needle worked by Black Hmong and it was a cross-stitch of a baby carriage.
At the end of seeing the exhibit, they led us to a long table covered with things we could touch. I quickly became attached to a bucket of thread. Not just any thread! The softest thread you ever felt!
It’s a shame how much culture is lost because of the war…
On March 27, [we] went to a Hmong blacksmith shop in La Crosse:
Many people come to this shop to see the blacksmith work and to talk with each other about life, funny things, and stories. The blacksmith shop is a place where Hmong people can come and relax.
The master blacksmith there is Tong Khai Vang. He learned the art of blacksmithing when he was 10. The master blacksmith is the best and most experienced blacksmith. Our guide, and one of the blacksmiths, was Yue Vu. … The blacksmith makes all sorts of things. Spirit-callers for shamans, hoes, hole cutters for trees, things to hold hot metal, knives, crossbows, and many more things. The spirit-caller takes sixteen to eighteen hours.
It was one of the most exciting, interesting, and powerful experiences we had on the trip.
[Yue Vu] showed us a lot of tools that a blacksmith would make. There were various tools used for working on a farm in Laos. One tool that interested me was a small curved blade for cutting single grains of rice off a plant when the rice is new. There’s a larger version of that for cutting lots of stalks of rice at one time, a tool that is used for drilling a hole in a piece of wood, and another for rounding it out to put rice in.
[One of the tools] was for a shaman but it wasn’t a knife. It was a ring with smaller rings that had zigzagged edges. In shamanism, it is used to communicate with the spirits.
After that, [the blacksmith] took us to the blacksmithing room. There was a big fireplace where Tong Khai sticks the metal in to be hot. There has to be a guy pulling it back and forward to make it hotter. The hotter it is the better it is. Every time the master blacksmith sticks the metal in, the [helper] will pull it back and forth. After that he pounds it. The more you pound it, the stronger it gets, so if you pound it a lot of times, the knife will be very strong.
When the metal was glowing red with heat, Mr. Vang took it out with tongs. Then he put it on a metal thing used for hammering tools into shape, and then, still holding it with the tongs, he started to hammer it into shape. When the metal first came out of the fire, I thought it looked like an unbreaking coal! When the metal wasn’t glowing red any more, Mr. Vang put it back in the fire among the coals. Then he took out the glowing metal to hammer. This he did eighteen times, until the blade of the knife was finished. Then, after cooling it down, he passed the blade (which wasn’t sharpened, all you mothers out there) around for each kid to hold. It wasn’t hot; it was just warm!!
While he hammered, little black flakes flew off of the knife. Those were bad pieces of metal.… Tong Khai would sell that knife for about twenty-five dollars.
The blacksmith was very cool. He started out with a piece of metal (usually from a broken down car), got it hammered into shape, and then (I think) he would sharpen it. They use special natural charcoal made out of wood. The bellows were a long tube with a handle used to pump air to the fire. This was a great experience and I want to do another trip next year.
Sounds of red hot iron
The blazing flame launches
Smoke fills the air.
Sewing and Basket Making
While we were at the Blacksmith and Senior Center we interviewed two ladies who were working on sewing.
The sewers were Shoua Her and Tong Vang. Shoua Her was sewing in what appeared to be cross-stitch, by hand, a piece of pandau [paj ntaub] to go on the back of a shirt. She learned how to sew from her heart, because her mother died when Shoua was 10.
No one taught her how to do needlework. Many people copied her style of making pandaus. On the needlework there are many different kinds of dark and bright colors.
Tong Vang was using a sewing machine and was making some traditional clothes for a White-Hmong man. She uses only sight to measure. She helped a boy from Longfellow [Middle School, in La Crosse, Wisconsin] put on a shirt and pants and hat that a Hmong man would wear. She let him keep the pants.
She likes the sewing machines that they have in America. She only makes traditional clothes and compares the body parts to the piece of clothing to make the cloth the right size.
The lady that is sewing by hand started when she was in Laos when she was a little girl. When her mom died she started to sew more and she is still sewing. The cloth she is holding up is a cross-stitch and it’s a baby carrier. There are clothes she makes. She sews whenever she is not busy. When she is alone she sews. Her daughters want to sew but they can’t because they have to do their homework and so they don’t have enough time to learn how to sew. The clothes that she makes are very traditional to the Hmong people that buy them.
There was a picture of two Hmong women. You can tell they were green Hmong because they wore green sashes. Although there were men’s clothes, there weren’t any women’s clothes in the room that day.
The women come to sew here so that they can sew together and talk and have fun. She had some other beautiful clothing that she brought that I think was just to look nice.
Neng Yang is a basket maker. He is making baskets so Shoua Her, a woman, had to talk. She does needlework. Shoua said back in Laos the baskets were made to carry dishes, clothes, babies, food, plants, dirt, tools, etc. They use thin bamboo that has to be the same size because thin bamboo can bend and doesn’t break and it can hold a lot of things. Everybody has to know how to do baskets by the age of about five or ten. The Hmong people only make baskets at certain times. The children learn how to make the basket by looking at how the elders do their basket weaving. Without baskets, you need to carry heavy things with your hands and your head. The baskets have names from the objects that the basket is used to carry. Many, many baskets were made in many different kinds of sizes to carry objects that would fit into the baskets.
The baskets were originally made in Laos with bamboo that was very thin. They use plastic to weave the baskets in America. He likes the bamboo baskets and the plastic baskets just as good as each other.
All of the baskets they make out of shipping plastic. Why? Because in Laos they use bamboo to weave the basket and since they don’t have bamboo here, they use plastic because it’s: 1.) cut in the right size strip already, and 2.) nice and durable. Some of the baskets were made of cut up hoses.
Sometimes in America people sell the baskets or use them for personal use of the family. Basket making is important in Hmong culture because you need to be able to move and carry things around. The baskets were more important in Laos where they used the baskets a lot.
In Laos everybody knew how to make baskets. But they could only do it in their spare time. If children wanted to learn, they could. Elders would show them how.
Children would normally learn how to make baskets when they were teens. Not all teens in America learn how to make baskets. The way they learned to make baskets in Laos was by watching an elder make a basket and then copying what they do.
The design he was making was called a “star.” The holes were shaped like.
He said they are hard to make because you could make them in different shapes. He said that you can’t learn when you are five years old or younger. He said you could learn how to make the basket when you are a teenager. He said that the basket is not that easy to learn. It looks easy but it takes a while to learn it. The basket could be any color but it is mostly green and black. I don’t know why but I think it means something. When he is done making it he takes all of his baskets and sells them and if no one buys the baskets then he gives it to one of his friends if they want the basket and they don’t he keeps them for himself. [He] keeps supplies in it. One basket takes about two hours because it takes a long time to put the plastic together to make the basket and make the shape you wanted it to be. They make the baskets when they are not busy.