Business Women: Textiles & Commerce of the Hmong, Southeast Asia

By Jennifer Angus, 1997

Import shops and vendors clutter parts of Toronto's Queen Street West and Kensington Market areas. Shoppers can find items such as belts, passport pouches and vests, which have scraps of appliqué or embroidery applied as embellishment, suggestive of far off "exotic" lands. A clothing tag might read "Made in Thailand" - but that is only the end of the story.

If that small scrap of textile could speak, it might tell of a journey to Canada that began in the hands of a Miao tribeswoman in the mountains of China's Guangxi province. From there it was passed to a relative in Laos or Vietnam, who sold it to the wandering Hmong merchant women of Thailand, who in turn sold it at a profit to a Thai vendor in Chiangmai's Night Bazaar.1 In the hands of the vendor, it was cut up half a dozen times to accent the backpacks and pouches that "farong"2 tourists and buyers snatch up to take back to Canada for resale or as cheap souvenirs. The textile has made a remarkable journey on what is, in fact, a sophisticated route of trade that is the domain of women entrepreneurs of the Hmong tribe.

Some may recognize the name Hmong and associate it with the nearly 100,000 refugees who came to North America in the 1980s from war-ravaged Laos. The Hmong's needlework often graces church bazaars and craft shows in the form of distinctive reverse appliqué3, quilts and pillow cases. The Hmong people number approximately nine million and inhabit mountainous areas in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the southern provinces of China where they are known as "Miao" - a derogatory name meaning "savages," given to them by the Chinese.

Believed to have descended from Siberians, the Hmong's turbulent history can be traced back to 4000 BC. Their participation in "America's secret war"4, in which they aided American troops in jungle warfare against communist regimes in Vietnam and Laos, proved them tough, intensely proud and independent people. The eventual defeat and withdrawal of their allies left the Hmong vulnerable to reprisals from the victors, and thus began a heartbreaking exodus; in 1980 alone, it is estimated that while nearly 40,000 people managed to escape Laos by crossing the Mekong river (to the relative safety of refugee camps in Thailand), an equal number died in the attempt - victims of land mines and the hostile patrols that pursued them.5

But the Hmong were survivors, ever resilient and ingenious. In the refugee camps, development workers recognized the superior needlework skills of Hmong women as displayed in the various elements of their traditional costume: reverse appliqué on aprons and collar flaps, indigo "batiked" and pleated skirts, and exquisitely embroidered children's hats.

The women were encouraged to adapt their skills for North American and European markets. They began to produce bedspreads, cushion covers and story embroideries, all of which have become immensely popular. Those Hmong who were eventually accepted as immigrants to North America have continued to sew both the new items and traditional clothing, which is still donned for special celebrations.

Increasing demand and the adoption of a busy lifestyle have required the women to commission family members in Laos (both the repatriated and those who never left) to make the textiles for them. Thus, the Hmong were able to help relatives at home while maintaining their cultural identity in the new land. The money generated from these endeavours also meant that, for the first time, women were often becoming their family's sole breadwinner.

What began as a means of survival in the squalid conditions of refugee camps has developed into a highly profitable activity. Hmong women from other regions, equally adept at recognizing market demand, have learned from their kin and, with the blessing of their men folk, have entered into the making, buying and selling of both traditional and new textiles.

The Hmong women are experiencing economic liberation. Their success has allowed them to leave the confines of the village, whether to take their textiles to town markets in Laos and Thailand or, for the more adventurous, to travel mountain paths and cross borders to buy old textiles from women in other communities. Gradually, a tribal trade and communication route has developed in which even Hmong in isolated Chinese provinces take goods (particularly hand-woven hemp fabric) to the border to sell to their relatives in Laos. In turn, those relatives pass it on to Thai clanswomen who either set up their wares for sale on the streets of Chiangmai, or sell to Thai merchants to sew into clothing and accessories.

In 1995, an estimated 25 per cent of Hmong women in Thailand were involved with the selling of crafts, both as makers and as merchants. Their success with the commercial aspects of their needlework and their increasing role as contributors to the family income ensures that not only will the traditions be kept alive, but they will also give women a stronger voice in the future.

  1. Chiangmai is Thailand's second largest city after Bangkok.
  2. Thai language for "foreigner."
  3. Reverse appliqué is a subtractive technique in which cloth is cut away to reveal another colour beneath. This technique is more widely known in the "molas" of the Cuna Indians of Panama.
  4. During the Vietnam War; Laos was heavily bombed as Americans tried to intercept supplies en route to North Vietnamese troops. At the same time, unbeknownst to the American people, Laos was experiencing its own conflict between communist and U.S. supported democratic camps.
  5. Statistic from Thailand: Refuge from Terror by W.E. Garrett, National Geographic, Vol. 157, No.5, May 1980.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada