Amazing Quilts from the Hmong Diaspora

These striking textiles were offered at our last Beehive sale. They are large enough to be used as tablecloths, bedcovers or hangings.

At first glance, the striking, high-contrast designs appear to be printed, but if you look closely you can see that the individual color elements are separate, hand-sewn pieces of cloth. The finest lines are no wider than a pencil. If you’ve ever done any quilting, you can appreciate this astonishing command of reverse appliqué technique – the tiny stitches are almost invisible. While it’s not possible to pinpoint the textiles’ geographic origin, (they could have plausibly been made in any one of 11 different countries,) their cultural origin can clearly be identified as Hmong.

The Hmong are an ethnic group based in the highland and mountain regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Ancient history records them as a migratory people and there is no historically documented homeland, so in modern times they have been a minority in every country they live in. During the Vietnam war (1955-1975), the Hmong were recruited by the American military to help with reconnaissance, combat, and the rescue of downed American pilots as commemorated in this statue located in Fresno, California, home to a large immigrant and American-born Hmong population. When the war spilled over into Laos, the U.S. Air Force/CIA even recruited Laotian Hmong airmen to fly secret missions for them.

When the war finally ended, many Hmong fled Vietnam and Laos to refugee camps in Thailand. From there they were eventually resettled in Australia, France, Canada, Germany, Argentina, French Guiana, and the United States, where around 260,000 people of Hmong descent live today.
Because these two pieces were found here in America, it is possible they were produced in Southeastern Pennsylvania or the Midwest, where there are also Amish communities.

The rural, village-based Hmong families that reached the United States didn’t have easily transferable job experience, however, sewing was traditionally taught to girls by their mothers at a young age, so most Hmong immigrant women had refined hand-sewing and needlework skills. They began marketing their traditional embroidered “flower cloth” or “paj ntaub” (pronounced “pan dow”), to American buyers. The cross-stitch or reverse appliqué designs were inspired by nature and are used to decorate traditional Hmong women’s clothing worn for celebrating New Year and other special occasions.

These Hmong sewers who settled near Amish communities in the 1970s and 80s caught the attention of professional Amish quiltmakers. Amish quilts are known for a subdued but strong color pallet, striking geometric designs and meticulous hand-construction. However, supply had begun to fall short because there were not enough skilled Amish sewers to get the work done. Hmong sewers were able to adapt their techniques to also produce for the Amish quilt industry. Hmong women in Pennsylvania are even believed to have produced up to 90% of the appliqué work sold in Lancaster County Amish quilt shops in the late 1980s, with almost all the Hmong women living there involved. Although (like their Amish and Mennonite counterparts) they make below minimum wage, quilt work is favored over other available factory work by many because hand sewing allows women to work flexible hours from home.

If you love textiles then check out QBO sales, you might take home a Hmong work of art.