Flower Cloth: A Storytelling Textile

Flower Cloth: A Storytelling Textile

The symbols and stitching of paj ntaub bear witness to the history of the Hmong people.

Flower Cloth: A Storytelling Textile

The symbols and stitching of paj ntaub bear witness to the history of the Hmong people.
February/March 2020 issue of American Craft magazine
Author May Lee-Yang
Mediums Fiber
Xiong Lee paj ntaub

Xiong Lee’s star and snail motif. Editor’s note: Where the creator of a work is known, it is listed. Where definitive creators could not be verified,“made or provided by” credits the known succession of the piece.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Collection

Paj ntaub (pronounced “pahn-dow”) are textiles created by the Hmong people, an ethnic group of East and Southeast Asia. The Hmong are often called nomads with no country to call their own. However, a more accurate term might be “exiles” as their history reflects multiple forced migrations. For a people with no home, paj ntaub, which literally translates to “flower cloth,” became a way to hold onto history and culture. The most recognizable paj ntaub in the US might be the storycloth – a tapestry embroidered with images of Hmong life that originated in Thai refugee camps after 1975. The art form, however, actually encompasses a variety of textile-based work that includes cross-stitch, appliqué, reverse appliqué, and batik designs.

For thousands of years, the Hmong lived in the mountains of China and were in constant conflict with the government. Some oral stories claim that during the reign of Huangdi (roughly 2698 – 2598 BCE), the Chinese attempted to suppress the Hmong by burning their books and making it impossible for them to read or write in their own language. As a result, women began preserving the language in imagery, stitching secret codes onto their clothes as they migrated from village to village. Today these codes are largely indecipherable, but the geometric designs and motifs remain.

Because of the predominantly oral culture (standardized written language using the Roman alphabet was developed in the 1950s), Hmong history was often shared through word of mouth, leading to multiple interpretations of artifacts and practices. For instance, some scholars claim the snail design, characterized by a swirling pattern, represents energy, while others say it represents family growth and interrelatedness, with two connected snails representing the joining of two families.

Many images have both a representational and a symbolic meaning. Triangles often represent mountains, like the ones the Hmong crossed, and inverted L-shapes often represent steps. While some of the traditional meaning of paj ntaub imagery has been lost, the art remains alive as present-day makers strive to create original patterns or put modern twists on more traditional designs.

Cross-stitch paj ntaub involves stitching patterns and images onto monk’s cloth, a type of evenweave fabric. Another form uses appliqué, a process whereby smaller pieces of cloth are cut and sewn over a base cloth. Funeral pillows, an example of appliqué, sometimes include maze motifs, which can represent agricultural landscapes – essentially the farm and home the deceased will have in the afterlife.

The elephant’s foot, the ram’s horn, and cucumber seeds are images often seen in reverse appliqué designs, another form of paj ntaub, which involves the free-form cutting of a pattern, overlaying and sewing one fabric onto another.

Finally, in batik, yet another paj ntaub form, a pen-like tool with a metal edge is dipped into melted beeswax and used to draw motifs onto hand-spun hemp or cotton. Then the cloth is dyed with indigo and boiled until the wax melts away, exposing the pattern beneath.

Traditionally, Hmong clothes were made of black or dark blue cloth. Paj ntaub, with its bright colors and intricate patterns, served to embellish cuffs, collars, and the vertical openings of shirts. Paj ntaub is also found in accessories such as headdresses, decorative aprons and belts, and “money bags,” stitched bags worn crisscross over the shoulders. Paj ntaub can also be seen on non-clothing items such as baby carriers.

The art form evolved with Hmong history. During the Vietnam War, the US recruited the Hmong, who customarily were sustenance farmers in the mountains, to be guerilla soldiers in what would later be called the “Secret War.” As a result of their part in covert operations, many Hmong fled to Thai refugee camps, where they had no land and, therefore, no means to make a living. Creating paj ntaub became a form of survival. Although paj ntaub was traditionally sewn by women, both women and men in the refugee camps stitched tapestries that depicted Hmong life: farming, tending animals, even narratives of living through the war. The storycloths, as they became known, marked a turning point in paj ntaub history and were popular with foreigners – bringing income to families in transition. Today, they also have a place in Hmong homes, serving as decorative art that also educates younger generations about the past.

When the Hmong began immigrating to the US as political refugees in the late 1970s, paj ntaub continued to evolve. While paj ntaub is present in traditional clothing worn for special occasions, embroiderers also transferred their needlework to stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments, and Western-style clothing.

Even colors changed. The Hmong customarily used brightly colored threads, such as hot pink, green, red, orange, yellow, blue, and purple. Suzanne Thao, a paj ntaub artist and teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, believes bright colors were favored for creating a sense of “freshness” and newness when juxtaposed with the black or blue base clothing. While many makers still use this color palette, some have created work with more muted color combinations to cater to customers’ tastes.

Today, paj ntaub has evolved in form and purpose, but it remains a witness to history.

To learn more about storycloths and paj ntaub, contact the Hmong Museum.