Sustainable Fashion with Black Hmong people in Vietnam
Sapa, as well as other northern mountainous regions in Vietnam, is the perfect place for slow-fashion lovers to explore handicrafts and eco-friendly fashion. Visitors have the opportunity of enjoying first-hand the great atmosphere of “an endless sustainable fashion week”. Everywhere you go, you’ll see batik textiles, weaving, embroidered fabrics and hand-made silver accessories. The people who live here wear clothes that are tailor-made, featuring authentic designs that follow their own traditional style, with no hint of the influence from the international mass media.
Each ethnic group has its own costumes and each family has their own patterns, which are specifically made into tailored suits for every family member. Among them, the Black Hmong people dominates not only because of their larger population, but also thanks to the beautiful embroidery brocades they create, whose style appears to be both modern and exotic.
The Fashionable Black Hmong
In this remote mountainous area of Vietnam, fashion is a very important part of life.
Black Hmong people care a lot about the way they look, and they always dress themselves with the best garments available. In this case, the word ‘best’ means ‘unique’ and hand-made. Each garment, which is tailor-made for each particular individual, fits the wearer’s body like a glove, which is a rare luxury that can hardly be found anywhere else. These indigenous people don’t follow any trends and don’t feel the need to fill their wardrobes with hundreds of mass-produced products. For generations, they have worn the same style, with only the beautiful batik details and the cross-stitch embroidery patterns to differentiate from each other.
Without any previous samples to follow, the Black Hmong women have created their own motifs by relying solely on their imagination, as well as on their observation of beautiful things that surround them, which they adapt into artistic geometric shapes. The cross-stitch patterns are embroidered color by color, from dark to light, until they fill the entire surface of the textile. The artisans also have to calculate the stitches precisely before getting started; if one stitch goes wrong, they will have to start all over again. These patterns are memorized and taught to the younger generations, who learn the art form with a mother’s instruction. Their creations are so aesthetically pleasing that people travel from far away lands to the mountain, with the sole purpose of buying the villagers’ vintage clothes.
For Black Hmong people, the quality of any suit worn by a woman is indicative of her cleverness, skillfulness and talent, as its workmanship relays all this information without a word. Tradition dictates that all good Black Hmong girls should know how to sew and embroider, which is why young girls have to learn embroidery and sewing from their mothers and sisters from the tender age of only 6-7 years old. As far as this particular ethnic group is concerned, a woman’s sewing skill is a lot more important than her beauty.
Natural Clothes-Making Process
The ethnic minority group of the Black Hmong in Sapa has an amazing textile making tradition. Their clothes are made from hemp, which is grown in the gardens of the villagers’ houses, and, after being harvested, is naturally dyed in indigo, according to their age-old tradition. The Black Hmong traditional costume usually comprises of a top, a pair of pants, along with various accessories, and can ultimately take a couple of months to finish. Every year, a Black Hmong woman can realistically only make about one new suit for herself, as well as two to three more for her family members, but each and every one of them is really worth her while, as it is usually worn for up to seven years! They have a small wardrobe, since a person often owns only six to seven suits that cover every occasion. After several years, their vintage clothes are made into souvenirs or decorative ornaments, and sold to various crafters, tourists and designers, who appreciate the tradition. Black Hmong clothes are never just thrown away!
We should bear in mind that Black Hmong people do not weave their textiles with the purpose of selling them, as they are created for their own use, instead. So each piece of clothing can be considered as their own work of art. It’s a really time-consuming and eco-friendly process that requires a lot of hard work, as well as skill and mindfulness from the makers. To make it a little easier to follow, we broke this creative process down into these steps:
Hemp is organically cultivated in the artisan’s house garden, and, after being harvested, it gets dried under the sun and torn into long, narrow strips. The sight of Hmong girls bearing a pack of yellow-brown strings wrapped around their hands is fairly common in these parts. That’s the hemp they bring along wherever they go, to tear off in their free time. The strips are then joined together by hand, to form a single continuous thread, which gets combed and spun into rolls, to produce thread that’s perfectly ready to be woven.
Weaving the Threads Together
These hemp threads are then put in the thread holder part of the loom, in order to be woven into an ivory color textile by single stitch.
Before getting started with the painting, the artisans melt beeswax in a small bowl, by putting it next to some heated coals. Then they use a special tool with a blade-like point, and start to paint on the fabric, using the melted wax. The beeswax will work as a color-resistant layer, which will keep the original color of the fabric throughout the dyeing process. Hmong people are also known to sometimes use a small piece of cotton cloth to paint batik textiles.
Dyeing the fabric
In order to create the dark blue dye color, indigo leaves are harvested and soaked in water inside wooden barrels, for at least three days. After that process is completed, the artisans add some limestone to the water, to create the perfect color. When the dye is ready, they put the fabric in, then remove it from the dye and wash it, and finally hang it up until it’s completely dry. This process is repeated many times, until they achieve the desired color.
Decorating the Fabric
Traditionally, various triangular pieces of fabric or just simple hem lines are sewn onto the batik surface, as decoration. As for the artisans’ clothes, they are usually embroidered using cross-stitch patterns that cover the entire surface of each cloth, which is then attached to the sleeves.
Lastly, the Black Hmong artisans skillfully sew everything together, to form a gorgeous suit.
You can watch a video showcasing the hemp textile weaving process by ‘Sapa O’Chau’ here:
Or a video about batik painting techniques and traditional costumes by ‘VTV4 on the Go’ here:
If you are interested in learning more about the ethnic groups that inhabit the remote northern highlands of Vietnam, check out our blog about the ‘Lu People in Vietnam’!