Future of Laotian folk art hangs by a thread
In a small, barren San Diego apartment in a wartime housing project on a Saturday morning, refugee children are watching cartoons on television. They grasp only a few words, but recognize more each week. The father is studying computer analog systems at the kitchen table. On the walls there are photos of family members in colorful native costumes standing in front of huts. The mother , Yang Chea, is doing pa dao (pronounced pan dao), the ancient needlework of the Hmong people of northern Laos.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a delicate art, this pa dao, consisting of tiny cross-stitches the size of petit point combined with applique, and it presents a delicate issue. The future of this ancient folk art is hanging by a thread, but Yang Chea stitches on, hoping her daughter will do likewise.
By hand she executes a central design in boxes, counting the threads of the underlying fabric to ensure symmetry. Within the boxes she stitches floral or geometric patterns, butterflies or Lao temples. Thousands of stitches blend together into a mass of color surrounded by embroidered borders or appliqued bands in contrasting colors. Sometimes the appliqued border is a series of tall triangles, representing the mountains the Hmong crossed to escape their homeland.
Often the applique is in reverse, similar to the art of the San Blas Indians of the Carribbean, with layers of fabric cut and folded under to reveal a contrasting color beneath. Nothing is drawn. A Hmong woman must approach her fabric with only scissors and needle.
The designs reflect their village life for the last 1,000 years, beginning when the Hmong inhabited central Mongolia, then China, before they immigrated to Laos. Shells, pumpkin seeds, stars, the path of a worm, the cross section of a cucumber, the scales on a dragon's back, the stamp of an elephant's foot are all traditional applique designs. Some American observers even see in the designs an aerial view of the terraces around sacred fortified cities.
Besides the traditional colors of bright pink and strong yellow, a Hmong woman chooses colors that represent her tribe. Called green Hmong, white Hmong, blue Hmong, for example, the tribes take their names from the predominant color of the woman's festival dress. In addition to festival clothing, pa dao pieces were also used as wall hangings, bedspreads, collars on wedding and funeral clothing, baby carriers, handbags, pouches, money belts, sashes, and pillows.
By the time a Hmong girl is nine years old, she has taken up her needle to learn the fine cross-stitching. She knows that her needlework skill is a sure measure of her value as a marriageable bride. By the time she marries at 14 or 16, she must have a wedding skirt, which takes a year to make.
With horizontal patterns of tiny embroidery, appliqued bands, ribbons folded in a zigzag pattern, and, for the green Hmong, batik, the entire skirt, generously full, is pleated in tiny 1/4-inch wide pleats. Without irons, pleats are sewn in tightly and the skirt is stored for a year to set the folds. On the wedding day and every new year thereafter, those stitches are removed, releasing the pleats. The day after each year's festival is devoted to repleating, putting the threads back in for another year.