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I have been purchasing wonderful Story Quilts for a number of years from their makers in Vientiane, Laos. Although the Hmong can be found in Vietnam and Thailand I usually find the best quilts in Laos. And over the years I have developed a relationship with some of the makers who save me a nice selection. Every few years I am lucky enough to be offered an Escape Quilt.
Hmong story cloths are an art unto themselves, totally separate from other Hmong textiles which feature geometric designs rather than pictorial. They are called "Paj Ntaub Tib Neeg" and these lovely pictorial embroideries developed very recently in Hmong history. It appears that Hmong men began to draw elements of traditional Hmong stories to help make sure they would be remembered during the times of change. While in the refugee camps, if not sooner, women began to have the men draw on fabric so that they could stitch the stories on cloth.
They are an incredible blending of tradition and modernization. Story quilts come in an array of themes from food preparation to courting and wedding traditions to life in refugee camps.
These remarkable embroidered cloths include not only the stories and daily life of Hmong culture but also record their experiences during the Vietnam war and their escape to Thailand. The quilt shown above is a large version of the "escape" quilt. If you saw Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino there was a smaller version on the wall in the hall in the Hmong house.
The Great Wall of China and Chinese troops chasing the Hmong on horseback. And a typical Hmong village.The central Chinese government, dominated by Han Chinese, often left the Hmong (called Miao by the Chinese) alone, as long as they paid their tributes to the Chinese. However, the last dynasty in China, the Qing (1644-1911), founded by Manchus, followed a different policy. Qing armies and officials oppressed the Hmong, who rose in three major periods of rebellion. In the early nineteenth century, this political persecution, along with increasing population pressure, led some of the Hmong to migrate southward into mainland Southeast Asia, where they settled in the mountainous regions of northern Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
Leaving Vietnam by air and being chased by soldiers. The trek to the border.
The stitches used for story quilts seem very limited at first glance. But there is a surprising variety including back stitch and stem stitch in a dazzling array of colors, bokhara couching is used in the walls of the houses which does a fantastic job of mimicing the bamboo construction of the Hmong houses. People, animals, flowers and tools are all comprised of satin stitch. Traditional style clothing and adornment are delicately portrayed. Note the black jackets with blue sleeve cuffs which are everywhere in a Hmong village.
Crossing the Mekong at Vientiane, Laos with the famous arch and a temple in the background.
Swimming across the river to refugee camps in Thailand.