Chronicle 9: Traditional Hmong Hemp Spinning and Weaving

August 3, 2022


Rubber Chronicles

Women stanfing with weaving string

Stories from the road... Sa Pa, Vietnam

We're taking a little break from talking about rubber, but still in keeping with how things are made and stories while we're on the road - Sa Pa, Viet Nam.

We have visited a number of modern / automated fabric mills in Southeast Asia, still the patent lawyer in me sees that no matter the automation or the scale-up, making threads, spinning fibers (thread) to make yarn and weaving yarn at their core has been substantially unchanged. Over 20,000 years ago early made threads by twisting together plant fibers. Weaving dates back to Neolithic times (12,000 years ago). Weaving is is simply interlinking a set of vertical (warp) threads with a set of horizontal (weft) threads.

So, to my joy when we came upon Say (pictured here), a member of the Black Hmong in Hao Chai village that is tucked into the hillside where terraced rice paddies create the lush landscape of the Muong Hoa valley in the northwest region of Vietnam in Lao Cai province (close to border of Yunnan, China).  

There are over 20 hillside tribes including the Hmong (Black, White, Green and Flower Hmong), Yao and Tai.  Once nomadic but are settled in the Hoang Lien mountains like the clouds and the mist that hang over the mountain valley. The Hoang Lien mountains are the most southern reaches of the Himalayas. The Hmong are descended from the Chinese Miao ethnic minority group.

The Hmong have been using Cannabis, from which hemp derives, and weaving its fibers for over 5,000 years. Traditionally, if a Hmong woman could not spin and weave, the family would have no clothing. Although the availability of cotton and synthetic fabrics make clothing more affordable, modern Hmong women still spin and weave hemp fibers by hand.  Say showed us how.

Making Hemp Fiber and Yarn

The crop cycle for hemp is about 3-4 months. After the harvest, the leafy upper portions are removed, the stalks are bundled and dried before they are soaked in water so that the bark can be peeled away from the wood. The bark skin is softened with a stone mortar and split into thin strips or ribbons that are joined end to end by hand twisting (see image below).

Traditionally, the women do this while carrying about their errands with loads on their backs.  In the image below, the woman in the middle is twisting hemp while she's walking. The twisted ribbons are moved to a spinning wheel and combined with other threads or fibers and spun into a (round) yarn. The yarn is then drawn onto a square-shaped straightening frame stretching it between the four ends of the frame. After it is stretched it is removed from the straightening frame, wound, and boiled in water with lime to lighten the yarn. Beeswax is also added to smooth the fibers.

Weaving Hemp Yarn

The weaving process is done on a loom where a set of warp threads are stretched between a series of wooden stakes. It used to be, the women used a body-tension loom on their body, but the more "modern" stationary looms are now favored and allow the women to use both feet to press the treadles (the foot levers) to shift the pair of heddles, as she moves the shuttle connected to the weft (crosswise) thread back and forth between the warp threads- and foming the cloth. It's mesmerizing to watch.  

traditional women walking with weaving materials

The Hmong batik dye the hemp cloth by melting wax and hand painting patterns on the cloth with a wax knife. It is then dipped in natural indigo dye to different shades of blue and black- and hence giving the Black Hmong their name.

Depending on the garment, embroidery and ornaments sewn into the fabric, a traditional Hmong skirt can take up to 2 years to create. For nomadic tribes without once a nation, their clothing was how they distinguished themselves. Our video contains a few images from 2007 when we visited this region. Most of the Hmong then still made and wore their traditional dress, but now there is mixture of old and new like the Ha Long Bay shirt Say is wearing paired with a modest (non-hemp) skirt but traditional handmade hemp leggings.

I'm often conflicted by innovation. Perhaps you are too? I really like my iPhone12 Pro and all the images and videos of the Rubber Chronicles are done using it. Still, as an amateur anthropologist, observing thousand year old traditions like this while appreciating that automation in modern fabric mills is the same basic technology - warp, weft and shuttle, warp, weft and shuttle, repeat.

I hope you enjoy our video as much as I did making it. For amazing pictures of the many ethnic minority tribes in Viet Nam, I really like @precious_heritage_museum

Check out our reel !

women weaving
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