Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.
Lives Of The Hmong People Told In Story Quilts
All arts and crafts are near and dear to my heart. It was no surprise to find me staring at the framed display of an unusual quilt. Mesmerized by the hand-stitched little people and the skill of the needlework, I had to ask what it was and where it came from. I saw it for the first time when I came to teach Watercolor Painting at the Fresno Adult School. This unusual and charming blue quilt displayed in the lobby was simple yet complex. Since that day I have seen several Hmong story quilts, or clothes as they are sometimes called, with the same blue fabric background and triangular patterned border, yet with different stories to tell. The people marching across the cloth are trying to tell me something about the Hmong people. This is their journey and story.
Trying To Understand The Culture Better
In my research, I keep the focus on the lives of the Hmong people and not just the "thing" of the story quilt. Trying to understand the culture better and going beyond the surface of the beautiful story quilt, I aspired to find the meanings and definitions placed on them by the Hmong people. To that end, I sought out Say Xiong to help decipher the story quilt displayed at the Fresno Adult School. Also in order to get a detailed account of the quilt, I needed to include a detailed backdrop.
The Hmong people have a long history of searching for a land where they can be free. Their people were subsistence farmers and are said to have come from northern China long ago, and moved southward to avoid persecution.
They wore distinctive dress and could even identify other families and clans at a distance by the design, cut, elaborate embroidery, and colors used for the headwear. Among the Hmong, costume as an important element of ethnic identity.
A Form Of Communal Farming
They engaged in a form of communal farming. "Those that agree to participate in the communal farming go to work with each other. First, we will work on Say’s farm (pointing to Say), the next day we work your farm (point to me), and the next day we all work my farm," explained Eldrick Chang, describing their form of agrarian reciprocity. They worked together in a close-knit community relationship, doing for each other. When they came here to the United States, many were spread out by the immigration services so that the impact on one state or city would not be too difficult. However what this did was to break up close village communities and even families, who later spent years searching for each other. With more educational and employment opportunities here in the US, many Hmong no longer farm. However, I have seen many communal garden plots here in the city of Fresno. Working together, they are able to supplement their income by transforming these empty lots into blooming, fruitful garden spots. I love seeing growing things and these hardworking people seem to also.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited many Hmong people to spy against the Vietcong. The Hmong were strong supporters of the United States during the Vietnam War and were in grave danger both during and after the war because of this. After the United States pulled out of Vietnam, many Hmong people escaped persecution by crossing the Mekong River, where many drown in the attempt. One story told in Eldrick Chang's family was of a mother who gave her baby opium to keep him from making noise and giving their position away to the Communist soldiers. Unfortunately, they gave the baby too much and he died. According to Chang, there are some story clothes that depict this story as well.
The Hmong story quilts function as the written language of the people for many years, saving their lives, their stories, and their folklore. Language is an important part of any culture or organism to share in society.
Hmong Story Quilts or clothes are called paj ntaub, pronounced "pa daow". The bright colors and the embroidery have evolved over the years. Originally the needlework was used to decorate clothing. These decorative stories were traditionally sewn on the "Qua Sev, a belt that is worn on the Hmong women’s waist," but soon became larger squares used as tablecloths or wall hangings.
The Hmong needlework could be considered "primitive art" in that most did not have any known artist associated with it, partly because the artists were "preliterate". According to Dr. George Leonard, preliterate means that the Hmong people were not illiterate, but that they simply had not invented a written form for their language. In the 1950s, Christian missionaries created a standardized and Romanized Hmong language. Beth Conklin writes in her article that Westerners appreciate "primitive" art because it resonates a visual exoticism and is ahistorical or unchanging. The Hmong story quilts may be considered primitive art; they are not, however, unchanging. Whatever the reason, Westerners have appreciated the Hmong story quilts and have created a source of income for them, allowing for some measure of independence and creative voice.
Grandfather's Story Cloth
Continuing To Transform In Purpose
Although the original purpose of the Hmong story clothes has changed from a personal history record to a commercial venture, the quilts are continuing to transform in purpose. They are becoming even more than a memory quilt or a consumer item. They are art forms on a cultural level. In the children's story "Grandfather's Story Cloth" the young boy is dealing with his grandfather's failing memory through the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. The boy, Chersheng, feels helpless and sad but had found that each time he shows the family story cloth to his grandfather, the memories of his life in Laos becomes clearer and alive in his memory. In the end, Chersheng decides to create his own story quilt so they can all remember that their life and love together is stronger than Alzheimer’s disease, no matter what country they live in. A beautiful story.
Time and effort involved in creating a quilt.
Times And Cultures Are Not Static
I wouldn't say that knowing more about Hmong story quilts has changed my own art as much as it has changed the way I see art. Their use of perspective, or lack of traditional perspective, has allowed me to see outside of traditional rules of Western ways of doing art. I think this method of portraying more than one moment in the life of one person or people is fascinating. They have found a way to describe their life together and a year in their world.
Leave a Stitchery Comment or Two
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 28, 2016:
It's true, I haven't found many of them available online at places like ebay or Amazon anymore. The folks I spoke with for the interview said that family members were often going back to Laos to visit family and could bring me one if I wanted to buy one. With that in mind you could perhaps call a cultural center or educational center in your town and ask if there is a Hmong representative you could speak to about buying a story quilt. They would know at least, who to get you in touch with. Sometimes they take the quilts to outdoor stalls at farmer's markets and New Years Celebrations like the one I went to. There were many there for sale. I am lucky that there is such a large community here in the Central Valley of California. Good luck. Thanks for commenting. I hope I was of some help.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 28, 2016:
I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about this story. They are great and sweet people. Thanks for commenting.
Jessie on March 23, 2016:
I want to purchase a story quilt for a professor who is retiring. She absolutely loves learning about the Hmong culture and had us read "and you fall down". Where can one be purchased? I can only find wall stickers!
Kelly A Burnett from United States on March 22, 2016:
Absolutely gorgeous - bright, beautiful and with a story to tell. Thank you so much for a great tribute to this great culture and legacy of art.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 10, 2015:
I had to find someone Hmong who could translate what the story cloth was saying and even she had to defer to her elder to really get the whole message. I suggest you start by calling your local Adult Community Education division in your city and ask if they know someone who would be willing and available to help. Good luck.
Tim Andrews on June 01, 2015:
I bought a Hmong story cloth, now I am trying to find out more about it. It is 33" wide and 53" tall very detailed work Who can I contact that has more information on these pieces
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 03, 2015:
Thank you for visiting and commenting. I love my quilts and was pleased to share this.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 29, 2015:
Wouldn't that be something if every culture throughout the world had a storytelling device like this? Actually I think they do but each culture used something specific to them like totem poles or bards, or music, or literature. Interesting.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 25, 2015:
So glad to be of service. I enjoyed my research very much. Thanks for visiting and commenting.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 21, 2015:
You went to Laos? That must have been amazing and a beautiful trip. Did you buy any of the Hmong story quilts at the market there? I'm sure it was an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 19, 2015:
So true that the embroidery is amazing. It is a shame that more people don't know about this amazing art form unless they have visited a Hmong New Year Celebration or happened upon one in a museum. I enjoyed learning more about them myself. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 16, 2015:
Thank you so much for visiting. I agree they are colorful, skillful and outstanding. It was wonderful interviewing these amazing people and hearing their story too.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 12, 2015:
I love the colors too. They are so bright and vibrant. It is amazing the skill involved.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 07, 2015:
I know, they are so amazing and obviously time consuming, that it amazes me when I see they sell them for so little. I made an Etsy page for my aunt to sell some of her quilts on and after going over how much time she put into them plus the materials, we decided not to sell them under $700. Of course they were queen bed size and most Hmong story quilts aren't that size but still, the materials plus time are worth a lot more than they are selling them for. Amazing.
sandybrownpop from peshawar on March 20, 2015:
you are welcome PAINTDRIPS.....:-)
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 20, 2015:
Thank you very much.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 20, 2015:
Evelyn, that is a valuable find. Good for you!
sandybrownpop from peshawar on March 19, 2015:
Beautiful and amazing
Evelyn Vannier, Canada on March 18, 2015:
I recently discovered a Hmong quilt in a Value Village Shop in Saint John, New Brunswick,Canada. Imagine my pleasure at this discovery. I am still feeling excited!
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 04, 2015:
Bobbi, my grandmother made a few quilts also but my mother has been making them for the past couple decades and making sure every member of the family has one. It is quite a legacy she is spreading around. I love mine and actually use it but I don't launder it in the washer. I want it to last.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 28, 2015:
Thank you all so very much for the kind votes and visits. I found these fascinating too. Beautiful hand stitching and creativity.
sandybrownpop from peshawar on January 23, 2015:
#Awesome and #creative
Dip Mtra from World Citizen on January 18, 2015:
Interesting hub. Voted up.
Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on January 18, 2015:
My Grandmother Knight made me a memory quilt it was beautiful. I loved her so much I carefully wrapped it and put it in a steamer trunk.
Your research told the beautiful story and thanks for writing this one. I myself have never made a quilt. My mother said Grandmother would have other farmer wives over to a quilting party---what they did besides sewing and talking I do not know.
I voted Up +++ I will share with Twitter and put on my re-pin board on Pinterest.
Have a wonderful week.
Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on January 18, 2015:
Quilts that tell a story! Fascinating to read about other cultures and to have their stories woven into quilts through the ages.
Shasta Matova from USA on January 18, 2015:
I've seen some Hmong story quilts and have been fascinated by them. Thank you for teaching me more about them.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 18, 2015:
When we were in Laos, the Hmong have a night market in Luang Prabang and their quilts were really interesting.
Donna Herron from USA on January 18, 2015:
I used to work for an arts organization that had a number of Hmong quilts on display in our building. They are so beautiful and unique. I love how the embroidered details pop against the traditional blue background. Thanks for sharing the history and details of these artworks. So glad to see these wonderful works shared with a larger audience! Voted up and beautiful!!
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on January 18, 2015:
These story quilts are fascinating! The colors and designs, absolutely stunning. Thank you for bringing this cultural art to my attention. Voted up, useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting and will share with others.
Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on January 18, 2015:
I love the use of color in Hmong quilts. Beautiful!
Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on January 18, 2015:
This is a fascinating cultural art form. The in-depth information you provide of the Hmong people and their story quilts is very interesting and I really enjoyed learning about the people and their history. I love to make quilts, so am very much aware of the time and effort it takes to create one. I also love to research and study about cultures around the world - so, this hub holds a lot of interest for me. I appreciate and thank you for your research and writing this article.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 07, 2015:
This one along with the feature on Multiculturalism reminds me that we need to embrace the multicolored threads that make up this country's mosaic.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 25, 2014:
@favored: So true. It was a joy to interview my informants. The taught me so much.
Fay Favored from USA on July 25, 2014:
Although I am not familiar with these, I have seen other story quilts. They are so beautiful and the background for each part is fascinating. Such a work of art.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 24, 2014:
@Heidi Vincent: I learned a lot too. Glad you visited.
Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on July 24, 2014:
Very interesting lens about the story of the Hmong and their culture. I did not realize that so much could be told about the life of a person, family or village in one quilt. Thanks for sharing.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 18, 2014:
@AcornOakForest: Thank you so much. I love needle arts and these quilts are really special.
Monica Lobenstein from Western Wisconsin on July 18, 2014:
This page is well done and very interesting. The Hmong people have a fascinating and, many times, sad history. I knew and tutored many Hmong students in college and learned their stories. My parents are fortunate to own one of these beautiful quilts and have it hanging in their home. Thank you for sharing this lens! I appreciate the respect you gave to the people and their culture!
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 17, 2014:
@ecogranny: Thank you for that. I have several good Hmong friends who tell me of the struggles but also of the hope. They sure seem to be a resilient and creative people. Very modest and loving.
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on July 17, 2014:
Thank you for sharing the beautiful Hmong quilts with us. I last read a book about their culture and the community they had built in Fresno several years ago. At that time, they were having a very difficult time of it. Your story gives me hope that, as a community, the Hmong in Fresno and surrounds are finding peace and building a good life that bridges both cultures.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 16, 2014:
@Merrci: It's true. It's like raising children, I think. You don't get paid but it's a labor of love and the results are usually beautiful.
Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on July 16, 2014:
These are amazing. What a wonderful background on them as well. The details look so intricate! Quilting takes such patience, a labor of love.