Cat Cat is a typical Hmong village in San Sa Ho Commune, about 2km from central Sapa in Lao Cai Province. It is peacefully located at the foot of Mount Hoang Lien Son. Besides farming and keeping cattle, the locals are masters in traditional handicrafts, the most noteable of which is flax spinning and weaving. Cat Cat produces various handicrafts loved by visitors.
The craft of spinning and weaving has been preserved by Hmong women, passed down to generations of girls when they near marriageable age. It is customary for a Hmong girl to make her own wedding dress, pouring her whole heart into its meticulous crafting. These dresses express the hard-working women’s ingenuity and virtues, carrying their wishes for children, peace, and happiness. Another Hmong custom is to dress the dead in linen clothing for the burial ceremony so that their souls may reunite with those of their ancestors.
Ethnic brocade products are usually made from flax fibers thanks to its soft but resilient nature and durability. After flax plants are ready to harvest, they are bundled up and left to dry in the wind and sun. Once dried, the plants are peeled, and the resulting fibers are boiled until they turn white. The peeling process requires excellent skills to prevent the threads from snapping and to minimize knots. Splicing must also be done with great care to yield sleek and even fibers. After the manual splicing and spinning process, the fibers are spun once more on a loom and reeled into a clew. At this stage the flax thread has become much smoother than the raw material and is ready to be woven.
In Cat Cat village, every household has a loom, and every woman knows how to spin and weave. Simple as it may be, the weaving loom used by generations of Hmong women has produced silky smooth, uniform, and hard-wearing strips of linen. Each row of this plain-looking fabric is formed by the artisan’s meticulous attention to detail, steady movements, and mastery of the craft. It perfectly represents their lifestyle – simple and uncomplicated but still elegant, among the mountains.
The woven fabric is then soaked in a liquid made from the indigofera tinctoria plant. Indigofera leaves are crushed into a viscous extract with glimmers of green and stored inside a pine barrel. Kitchen ash or lime powder is poured in to help the indigo fabric keep its color. Artisans add more water before the batch is left to rest for six to eight days to create a dark blue that can be used for dyeing. After it is dyed and dried, the fabric is coated with beeswax to make it smooth and rolled under a wooden pestle on top of a flat rock to give it a polished surface.
After the dyeing process, various patterns are skillfully embroidered onto the fabric. Hmong people incorporate colorful motifs like flowers, leaves, and animals that please the eyes. The hand-sewn patterns are not perfectly aligned, but each product has its own character. Each motif carries a meaning that reflects the locals’ daily routines and spiritual values. The designs also reveal Hmong peoples’ vivid imaginations and desire to live in peace and happiness.
As seasons change with fleeting moments of joy and sorrow, the women in Cat Cat village still spin, weave, and embroider in perpetual cycles. Undeterred by the rapid changes of the outside world, in this quiet village, the flowers still bloom, the birds still sing, and the women still spin and weave as they were born to do. Without any complaints, they carry on with life and their traditional crafts.
Mature flax plants enter weaving looms, old indigofera leaves are collected and made into dye, and uniform strips of fabric are given wings by intricate and creative embroidered patterns, carrying dreams and goodwill aplenty. Brocade products made by Cat Cat’s villagers silently accompany visitors to foreign lands. They take on a mission to preserve the rich and diverse cultural identity of Vietnam’s people.