The ancestors of H'Mong can be traced back to 3000BC in China. There are records that show the H'Mong already mastered the techniques of weaving with fibers and dying cloth using plants and fruits around 200BC - 200AD. The H'Mong migrated southwards through their long history, reaching Vietnam, Laos and Thailand towards the end of 18th century, taking with them the tradition and knowledge of hemp growing, yarn spinning, weaving and making cloths by hand.
Today the H'Mong women continue to weave and make the clothing for the whole family, as they have done for millennia. If a woman cannot make the clothing, the whole family would go without new clothes. Where in the past hemp was used for making clothes, purchased cotton is now replacing homespun hemp in larger numbers. Many H'Mong women are buying already-made clothes, usually in synthetic fabric, to be worn while working in the fields, thus reducing the need for weaving.
The skill and knowledge have been passed on to generations of young girls, despite the thousands of years of migration and development. However, in the last 20 years or so, these precious skills that are part of the H'Mong DNA have lost ground, and it could accelerate. In one village I visited, the entire village had already abandoned hemp weaving with the advent of better road infrastructure, access and more contact with globalisation.
The finished hemp cloth. Usually woven in narrow width looms, the cloth is dyed in indigo. The black colour of the Black H'Mong clothing comes from indigo, as the hemp cloth is repeatedly soaked in indigo vats, letting it dry between each soaking.
This is the hemp plant (also known as cannabis). The H'Mong know the best time to harvest hemp so it is not too weak nor too hard. The hemp stalks are dried then wetted before being stripped into fibres. The lady in the background is joining the dried hemp fibres into a yarn. The women join the fibres while they walk to the market, range the animals, or sit in pavements in towns. They carry a large basket on their backs for all their belongings in order to work with their hands.
The hemp fibres are pounded (in this case with an axe handle!) to remove the hard woody core pieces and soften them.
After joining the fibres to make them into yarns, they are spun with four thread counts.
The spinning wheel for twisting the yarn
The hemp yarn is stretched and straightened with this frame. The yarns are then boiled with domestic ashes to clean them and turn them into a lighter colour.
This large loom was spotted in one of the shops in Sapa. But in the outlying villages, the H'Mong women use much narrower looms to weave cloth measuring up to 30cm in width.
An example of a woman's costume from the Black H'Mong of Sapa. The hemp and cotton cloth are cut and sewn into these beautiful attire, completely decorated with embroidery and applique. The sheen on the narrow waistcoat comes from the finishing process where the spaces between the warp and weft are closed, and the cloth becomes finer and smoother. A log and a stone are used to press the cloth for this final process.
This is an example of Batik, where a batik knife is dipped in wax and applied with minute details to create intricate designs on woven hemp or cotton. Once the applicaiton of the wax is finished, the cloth is then soaked in indigo vats. The dying process once completed, the cloth is washed in hot water to remove the wax and for the patterns to appear.