When buying Christmas gifts this year, why not purchase distinctive needlework by Hmong craftswomen? By doing so, you will not only please those who receive the gifts, but help those who made them - the Hmong living in refugee camps in Thailand.
This distinctive needlework by Hmong women is known as "Pa Ndao" or flowercloth. It was originally used for ceremonial clothing in their southeast Asian homeland.But Chia Lo Ly of the Hmong Heritage Foundation said that her people in Thailand are not concerned with making ceremonial clothing. They live in refugee camps and barely have enough to eat.
Sewing to survive, the Hmong women make hangings, table runners, clothing, quilts, purses, belts, pillows, necklaces, story cloths and other items. They mail them to the United States and hope these items will sell.
During December, these needlework items will be displayed at several locations locally. (For list, see end of story.)
When making textiles, Hmong women use a number of stitchery techniques: applique/reverse applique, ribbon applique, cross stitch and a variety of surface embroidery embellishments. They use no rulers or magnifying glasses to create their straight lines and intricate details.
Ly said that the bright, bold colors characteristic of earlier textiles are being altered. "Now, they are often done in pastel colors. Our women have had to bend to the requests of people here who want to coordinate the colors with those in their home." She added that it is becoming difficult to find works that have been done in traditional colors, although some people prefer them.
A lot of the larger pieces that will be on display have been sent here by Ly's aunt who still lives in Thailand. About 200 Hmong women in the refugee camp helped her with the needlework.
One of the more recent art forms is the story cloth. Hmong women have introduced it fairly recently in their culture to record stories, since their written language was lost during years of migration.
"The stories are about our life back home in Laos," Ly said. The scenes include people farming and engaging in other activities. Many people are seen escaping the area as Communist soldiers and planes shoot at the Hmong.
Ironically, Hmong means "free man." This tribal people originally lived in China. But they refused to submit to Chinese rule and migrated to the southwest. Ever since, flight has been their way of life. Running and dying - that's about all the Hmong have known.
Ly said that several years ago, if a Hmong could find a sponsor, he or she could leave a refugee camp and come to the United States. But she said, "For a year now, no Hmong in the camps has been interviewed to come here."
After collecting money from Hmong art sales, Ly takes it to the bank, has a money order drawn up and mails it to her aunt in Thailand. "The money helps the families go to another camp to learn a little bit of English and Thai." Then she added, "One is motivated to learn if he has to do it to survive."
Ly lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, three daughters, her mother-in-law, Blia Ly, and other family members. They were some of the lucky ones who were able to immigrate to the United States. She says there are about 20 Hmong families currently living in Utah. Many others are clustered in Sacramento and Yuba City, Calif.
"When I was 14 years old, the Communists bombed our village in Laos and we had to escape," Ly said. "I remember walking through the jungle for five or six days before we reached a refugee camp in Thailand."
She said that only 20 out of 1,000 people found work in the camp. Fortunately, Ly was one of them. "I worked in a hospital and got paid $25 a month."
At that time, refugees were allowed to come to the United States. "My sister and brother-in-law, who were already in the U.S., were my sponsors," Ly said.
She arrived in California in 1978 when she was 17 years old. After living there one month, she moved to Utah where she attended Timpview High and, later, Bingham High.
For 10 years now, Ly has been a secretary for the Salt Lake School District. Her husband, Chue Ly, (whom she met in Utah) is a computer technician for the Davis County School District.
When asked why she devotes so much of her time to the Hmong Heritage Foundation, Ly said, "I still remember what it was like to be in that refugee camp in Thailand." That memory provides the motivation.
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Hmong textile exhibits and holiday sales have been planned at these locations:
- Saturday, Dec. 8, 1-5 p.m. at King's Cottage Gallery, 2233 S. 700 East.
- Friday, Dec. 14 - 5-8 p.m. at the Utah Arts Council, 617 E. South Temple.
- Saturday, Dec. 15, 1-6 p.m. at the Utah Arts Council.
- The Avenues Branch Library, 455 F St., is currently hosting an exhibit of handmade holiday ornaments and decorations that includes work by the Hmong. It continues through Jan. 2.
If you are unable to attend these shows, contact Ly at 328-7287 (office) and 533-0601 (home). She will be happy to make arrangements to show you these works.