H’mong women in Ha Giang turn flax into wearable works of art
On the journey to Lung Tam village in Ha Giang, our car struggled to climb over the winding passes of Quan Ba, or Heaven’s Gate. We drove down into a small valley surrounded by towering, cloud-enfolded mountain peaks. Finally, a small village came into view, set beside the Mien River. This village has become a flax-fabric cooperative. Its traditional H’Mong indigo-dyed fabric is now exported to many countries.
Strolling around the village, we found a house that smelled of cooking beeswax. After receiving permission to visit, we met Ms. Vang Thi Mai, then spoke to an elderly woman who was dabbing a brush into hot beeswax and meticulously drawing straight lines onto fabric. Ms. Mai explained the process of batiking fabric with beeswax.
Making fabric from flax involves 41 steps. The H’mong believe that drawing on the fabric with beeswax forms the fabric’s soul. This step is done with a special brush, the nib of which is a flat copper plate. To produce a full-color patterned dress takes a month, or even a few months.
The elderly woman we were watching is a master of this craft – the 94-year-old artisan Sung Thi Co. Ms. Co’s hands were scrawny yet dexterous. Ms. Mai said it was lucky that Lung Tam did not lose its flax-weaving traditions since elderly artisans like Sung Thi Co and Giang Thi Mi passed on valuable experience to the other villagers.
The flax plants are harvested three months after being planted on sharp mountain ridges to produce flax fabric. After soaking, the bark of the flax plant is split into thin strands. With skilful hand movements, H’Mong women can split the flax yarn into evenly thin strands that don’t snap. The material is rolled tightly and milled in a mortar to remove all of the starch. The remaining tough yarn is rolled into large skeins. After being boiled repeatedly on a stove in ash water, it is boiled in water and beeswax. At this point, the flax strands become whiter and softer. From this moment, the women of Lung Tam village start to sit at their looms.
Rolling the fabric after weaving is an interesting stage. I was impressed by the sight of a robust H’Mong girl standing on a stone slab, rolling the newly woven cloth. She placed the fabric on a round log, put a stone slab on the wooden shaft, stood on the slab, and put her hands on a wall. She then proceeded to move her body in a constant manner, pressing the log against the flax fabric in a rolling motion… This stage renders the yarn soft and glossy. The linked strands become thin, flat and less likely to be exposed.
People in Lung Tam also possess unparalleled indigo-dyeing techniques. Indigo-dyeing takes hard work and patience. To achieve the desired deep indigo hue, the fabric must be dyed several times over a few days. The fabric is soaked in indigo fluid for about an hour, after which it is taken out to drain and soaked again. The process is repeated five or six times before the fabric is ready for the actual dyeing.
Once the fabric is dry, it gets soaked about a dozen more times. The time required to achieve a deep shiny hue after soaking is highly dependent on the weather. When it is sunny, each piece of fabric only takes a few days to dye. However, when it rains, the task can take up to two months. The materials that give this fabric its unique colors and patterns are all taken from natural plants and flowers, which undergo meticulous processing to ensure the fabric’s colors are durable and look fresh. This makes products from Lung Tam village valuable. In addition, some patterns are hand-embroidered with designs popular with European customers, adding a touch of modern beauty to Lung Tam’s brocade.
In 2008, 2010 and 2011, Ms. Vang Thi Mai was invited by the Embassy of Vietnam in France to attend an annual craft fair honouring creative and dynamic women around the world. From this point, the first pieces of flax fabric produced by H’Mong artisans in Ha Giang began to reach the wider world. These items are sold in many countries, including Italy, the USA, France, and Switzerland.
According to H’Mong spiritual beliefs, flax yarn is a bridge between the living and the otherworld. In modern times, flax yarn has connected people along the Mien River with those living in Vietnam’s lowlands, and even further away, to people of different ethnic groups on many continents around the world.