The Hmong are an ethnic group that began coming to Minnesota in 1975 as refugees from the Vietnam War that decimated their homelands in Laos. The United States recruited Hmong men to assist in the war as a secret operation, with a total of 30,000 – 40,000 Hmong soldiers killed in combat, an estimated 1/4 of all Hmong men and boys fighting for the U.S. After the war, many Hmong escaped or evacuated to Thailand as the Lao monarchy was overthrown by Communist leadership, and the Communists launched a campaign to capture or kill the Hmong involved. From the refugee camps, many Hmong came to Minnesota starting in 1975, with the largest wave arriving in 1980, and the last arriving in 2004. Please note the length of time that some people were in the camps; I went to a talk given by a man who was a child in the camps.
Today, there are more than 66,000 Hmong in Minnesota, and the Twin Cities metro is home to the largest concentration of Hmong in America. Last year, the Minnesota History Center mounted an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Hmong in Minnesota, “We are Hmong Minnesota” This is translated from “Peb Mog Hmoob” in White Hmong, one of the three main dialects. All signage was in White Hmong and English. It was a sobering, colorful, interesting, beautiful exhibit, and I’m grateful that I was able to visit.
I have lived in Minnesota since 1980, and I have seen Hmong handwork since moving here, always appreciating and admiring it. This is the first piece of Hmong handwork I have the pleasure of owning, a gift from a friend.
This bag is 7×6″, so you can see the piecework is very tiny.
This pillow was purchased at a school’s garage sale fundraiser, is 9″ square, and lives on the couch in my living room. The cut work is all hand reverse-appliquéd, and the triangles are satin-stitch embroidery. The spiral is a common motif called a snail, and the outer shape is a star motif.
Finally, recently, I was at a thrift store and horrified/delighted to find two pieces of Hmong embroidery for almost nothing. The person who priced them didn’t know how spectacular these pieces are. I saw a corner of the binding peeking out from some embroidered hankies, and immediately recognized the Hmong style of binding. This first piece is cross stitch, and 27 x 28″.
And this, a truly spectacular piece that I am very grateful to be able to own. It is 34 x 32″, hand-embroidered with silk.
I work with someone who is Hmong, and I brought these to work to see if she could tell me anything about them. I was wondering if this piece depicted a fable, and she told me it is the animals of the forest. Click to see a larger picture.
Some of these embroidered pieces are called “story cloths” (paj ndau), and tell the story of current or pre-war life, or more poignantly, the war and escape. The Minnesota History Center has a huge story cloth that was on display during the exhibit. Here is a picture of it (65 x 95″). If you would like to see more, there are images in the MHS digital collections.
My workroom with my beads has no available wall space (bookcases, windows, and doors are in the way). I’m hoping that within a couple years, I will be able to repurpose a room into a sewing room, where I will hang these on the wall. I am pleased to be their next caretaker, and I will treat them well.