Hmong story cloth
Ban Vanai Refugee Camp, Thailand, 1987, by J. Folsom
35" x 53"
The Hmong people of Laos traditionally have embellished their clothing and other textiles with decorative needlework techniques such as appliqué, reverse appliqué, embroidery, and batik. The Hmong term for plain cloth transformed into these beautiful pieces is paj ntaub (pronounced pondouw), or flower cloth.
When the Royal Lao government fell to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, many Hmong who had been trained and supplied by the C.I.A. to fight a guerilla war against the Pathet Lao were forced to flee across the Mekong River to seek the sanctuary of refugee camps in Thailand. With little resources, but ample forced leisure time, they soon put their highly skilled hands to work producing paj ntaub for sale.
One type of paj ntaub made for sale is the story cloth. Story cloths depict narratives of ancient legends and traditional life in peaceful times. They also often depict their recent experiences of warfare, loss of homeland, the hopeless future of Thai refugee camps, and for some, their departure to an uncertain new life in America.
Westerners often assume that because the Hmong had no form of written language prior to the 1950s, they had long used story cloths to record and pass along these legends and histories to their children. But as SMM staff member Mr. Sue Thao writes:
"Story cloths are a commercial product of the refugee camps in Thailand, depicting people's life stories. It is not traditional Hmong stitching. And it is not how our elders pass stories from generation to generation. Our stories are passed down orally generation to generation."