The Hmong, whose name means "free people," have always
valued their independence and self-sufficiency. Once inhabitants
of central China, the Hmong were driven into southern China more
than 2,000 years ago by the ethnic Chinese, who were politically
dominant. During the 19th century, many Hmong families continued
their migration into the mountainous region of Southeast Asia. There
they live in relative isolation, scattered in small village groups
in northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In these regions, the Hmong
had a seminomadic lifestyle, practicing a type of farming that forced
periodic resettlement in search of fertile land.
In the 1960s, war in Southeast Asia had a devastating impact on
the Hmong, destroying their economy and food supply. By 1970, large
numbers of Hmong people living in Laos had become actively involved
in the war, allied with the U.S. military. When the United States
withdrew its troops from the area, the Hmong were forced to flee
to Thailand's refugee camps to escape political persecution. By
the late 1970s, many Hmong people had left the camps to settle in
the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and elsewhere. Since
that time, large numbers of Hmong people have settled in Minnesota.
In fact, outside of Southeast Asia, the Twin Cities has the second
largest urban concentration of Hmong.
Traditionally, Hmong women have decorated the clothing of all members
of their families. Placing great value on their handwork, Hmong
mothers taught fine needlework to their daughters at a young age.
In Laos, girls as young as five began to learn the necessary skills.
It takes years of training to learn the techniques of appliqué,
embroidery, and batik.
Traditional costume continues to be important to Hmong people living
in the United States, yet few young women are able to develop the
skills necessary for this art form. Because many young women must
meet the demands of acquiring an education and earning an income,
they lack the time that their mothers and grandmothers could devote
to needlework. Other ways of transmitting these skills have developed,
such as classes, workshops, apprenticeship programs, and pattern
books. Many traditional pieces, such as this skirt, are also imported
from Thailand and Laos.
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