Saturday, May 2, 2015

Hmong Work

Hmong Work

Patricia L. Cummings

My memories of the Vietnam-era are crystal clear: images on the television of fighting going on (during high school years), and protests being mounted at the university as the number of war dead mounted. When the war ended, the Hmong people (who were allies of the United States) tried to escape into Laos by crossing the dangerous Mekong River. As the scene below indicates, they used any method available: swimming, traveling in small plastic tubs, or trying to make their way on make-shift rafts.

Pictorial representation of the flight across the Mekong River

In Laos, there was little to do in the camps where the Hmong people were given safe haven. Men and women alike passed the time by doing needlework. The Hmong women have a strong tradition of appliqué work. When some of them migrated to the United States, supported by the Mennonite Church, the women found work doing appliqué on quilts for the Mennonite tourist trade in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Mennonites are very good at piecing and hand-quilting but not so skilled at appliqué. In Amish country, it is not widely-broadcast that many of the quilts are appliquéd by Hmong hands for fear that people would feel cheated if they thought a quilt was not totally constructed by an Amish or Mennonite quilter. 

The pictorial needlework of the Hmong sits in two camps: scenes of the people escaping the Communists and remembrances of peaceful villages. In addition, the Hmong are known for their tiny reverse appliqué and appliqué which are included in useful objects such as tote bags, small bags suitable to hold a camera, baby carriers, and many other items of utilitarian value. They also make exquisite "pictures," that could be framed. Today, the Hmong young people are assimilating into U.S. culture and the needlework is becoming a craft allocated to older Hmong. We could consider their type of needlework a "dying art." The skill involved in creating Hmong work make it important but its greatest significance is the celebration of a culture and that group's collective memories.

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