The origin of the Hmong Story Cloths
I acquired my first two story cloths from Hmong Village in St. Paul, Minnesota about seven years ago. I was visiting my brother, and it had been my first time there. As I walked by each stall, full to the brim with goods imported and homemade, I was amazed. The only other times that I had been exposed to so many Hmong goods were at the Hmong New Year festivals and holiday festivals held in my home state of North Carolina. It was like a flea market, on steroids. Hmong steroids. And I loved it!
When I passed by one of the stalls, my eyes were strewn to the different story cloths. There were multiple sizes, and each one were hand sewn and told its own story, stories of war, stories of love, stories of farm life, stories of a simple time, but a good time.
It was only recently that I started wondering why it is that for a people that passes down its stories orally, we would even have Hmong story cloths. Where did these beautiful art crafts come from?
In actuality, the story cloths were not a traditional art form. They were merely a means to an end.
During the Vietnam War, the Hmong people were recruited to fight alongside Americans. After the war, the Hmong people were classified as enemies of the state, and placed into Thai refugee camps. The Hmong people came into these refugee camps with what they could carry on their backs, and lacked any way to make money to help their families.
Most likely due to the Hmong people's intricately sewn clothing, it was suggested to them that they could sew story cloths in order to earn money, and that was the start and spread of the Hmong story cloths.
Since men and boys were more likely to have gone to school and have the experience of using pencils, they would first draw the stories. Once the drawings were completed, the women would then hand stitch the pictures to the story cloth using the needlework techniques that they have learned. As was common in the colorful, traditional clothing, the story cloths were originally created using very bright and bold colors (think neon pink and neon green). However, the Hmong people were told to keep the colors more subdued in order to appeal to the taste of Westerners.
Today, story cloths can be purchased through various avenues, including Hmong Village where I had purchased mine. Story cloths are not always hand stitched and may be stitched by a machine. There are also story cloths quilts as well as printed story cloths. The stories of the cloths remain a way of reminding this generation of the life of the Hmong people.