The Hmong in Ta Phin, Sa Pa, Lao Cai


Ta Phin commune is located in the mountainous district of Sapa, in Lao Cai Province, which borders China. The commune center is located in a valley within walking distance of Sapa town, a popular tourist destination. The Hmong of Ta Phin grow rice and corn on their terraced fields, and collect wood as well as orchids and cardamom from the nearby forest. To supplement income, some women sell handicraft to tourists in Sapa. They buy old skirts from Hmong women of other districts, or embroidered remnants from Dao clothing. Then they re-dye and sew by hand into bags and hats. The Hmong women also street vend shirts and other garments for business people in Sapa. 

Under a project whose partners include Craft Link, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, MRDP (Mountain Rural Development Program) and Oxfam Quebec, a group of Hmong women are learning to make high-quality products using the same techniques whose designs are based on their own traditional items of clothing. Incorporated into new products are original patterns for sleeves, collars, and the rows of fine hand stitching, which border the hems of their clothes. Following tradition, many products are indigo-dyed.

The project participants are receiving training in cutting and measuring, machine and hand sewing of products, as well as bookkeeping and management of their own handicraft enterprise.

HEMP
All women grow and process hemp, an important element in Hmong clothing. Usually hemp is planted in March and harvested in July. Then the hemp is dried and the bark, the hemp fiber, is striped from the stem and is pounded, boiled, spun and coated with wax before it is strung on a loom. All year around a woman is seen with hemp fibers wound around her hands, using what spare time she has to connect the separate fibers to make one long one. Because the processing of hemp is so labor-intensive, it is now used mainly for the outer vest (shao khua), while cloth purchased in the market is used for other garments. That hand-woven hemp cloth is still considered important and valuable, however, is evident in the fact that it is often given as a marriage gift.

INDIGO DYE
All clothing is dyed with indigo, which is often planted in kitchen gardens near the house and is harvested in late spring. A paste is made, and then cloth is alternatively dipped and dried continually for 30 days. During this dyeing season (August through December), the hands of most women are stained with blue dye. Some women also batik special cloths which are worn for carrying babies.

SEWING
Traditionally clothes are hand-stitched, with white, pink or blue stitches along hems. In a year, a woman will stitch a set of clothes for each family member. The weeks before Tet she is especially busy with sewing, as people wear their best clothes for the New Year celebration.

ARTICLES OF CLOTHING
- Shao khua, or outer vest. This is the most special article of a man or woman’s clothing. It is made of hemp, which is made shiny with beeswax. The collar (ploong chsao) usually stands upright to show the intricate embroidered and appliquéd piece of embroidery on the back.
- Shao ti, or jacket with embroided sleeves. This garment worn by women is worn underneath the shao khua and held closely by the belt.

- Plang soong, hi lang or belt, is an embroidered piece of embroidery on a piece of hemp with long fringes, which is tied around both the shao khua and shao ti.
- Cu chu, or leggings. Indigo dyed cloth is wrapped around the legs for warmth as well as protection while working in the field.
- Pu pua, or woman's hat, indigo cloth is wrapped around a short hollow basket worn on top of the head. It is said to provide warmth in the fog and wind of Sapa.
- Pu tii, or women's culottes. Men's tii are trouser-length.
- Mao tau or men’s small cap. This has been adapted with embroidery and sold to tourists in Sapa.

Symbols in embroidery
Most collars today incorporate a cu, or snail design, formed by a curling black chain stitch.
Sleeves and belts are more varied. Among the motifs are the khau li or the instrument used for winding hemp fibers, and chicken's feet, which are important in Hmong rituals. Plants and flowers are also represented.

Clothing in custom and ritual
Boys and girls dress in their best clothes during the festival of Tet, which is the time for courtship. They have the chance to observed one another during the game of con when a corn-cob with chicken feathers attached is thrown between a row of boys and a row of girls. A boy may give a girl his shao khua and if she doesn’t return it she accepts his proposal of marriage. For her marriage a woman prepare many set of clothes. Marriages sometimes happen by abduction, but today parents who require dowry more often arrange them. In this case, a girl may receive some cloth from the boys' family to prepare her clothing.
A woman wears a Hmong skirt made by women of other districts for giving birth. The skirt is said to be more comfortable, and it is also the clothing of their ancestors whom she will rejoin some day, which is why she will be buried in the skirt.

Jewelery
Hmong women usually wear one or several large hoop earrings called con de in each ear and one or more rings (po cu dang) around the neck. Though once produced by the Hmong themselves, people of Dao or Giay ethnic groups in other villages usually produce these.

For more information about this project, please contact:
 
CRAFT LINK
51 Van Mieu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: (84-24) 37336101 - Fax: (84-24) 38437926
Email: craftlink@fpt.vn - Website: www.craftlink.com.vn