Telling Hmong stories through fabric

[Cass Doherty]

Author Linda A. Gerdner spoke about the Hmong people’s culture and shared some of her extensive collection of Hmong story cloths in the McCarthy Forum on Oct. 6.

Gerdner’s talk was part of the Change the Conversation, Change the World series of presentations sponsored by FSU’s Arts & Ideas committee.

The audience was comprised of both students and members of the Sigma Theta Tau Honors Society of Nursing, an organization which co-sponsored the event.

Committee Chair, professor Lisa Eck said Gerdner’s work perfectly “fits the vision of the series.”

According to Gerdner, the Hmong people are an “ethnic minority” who live in the highlands of Laos, “away from the dominant culture.” They have no written language, so their stories are passed down through generations via intricately sewn story cloths.

After the Vietnam War spread to Laos, many of the Hmong were relocated to American-controlled refugee camps until 1995.

Many of the cloths Gerdner shared with the audience were made in these camps. The first of which, she titled “The Hmong People’s Journey.” This cloth depicted a failed rebellion against the Chinese and the Hmong’s relocation to a secret CIA base.

Gerdner noted that early Hmong story cloths were not as detailed as modern ones. Humans were represented as simple outlines on the blue background.

The blue background is a result of the hemp that is used to create the cloths. However, Gerdner does have one red cloth which she believes represents the communist takeover of Laos after the Vietnam War. Gerdner also shared a story about a yellow cloth that a colleague of hers said represents the royalty of Thailand.

The Hmong often intertwine humor into their stories, said Gerdner. One cloth depicted Hmong farmers being attacked by “sun bears,” running away as their hats fall off.

Story cloths are also used to instill morals in the Hmong youth. One of Gerdner’s cloths showed the story of a young man who was addicted to opium. The timeline of his life was visually represented as his appearance slowly deteriorated.

The materials used to make the story cloths are mostly made by the Hmong themselves, said Gerdner. The dyes used to color the fabrics, as well as the needles used to sew, are purchased from traveling Chinese merchants.

Gerdner’s collection of story cloths exceeds 50 pieces. Most of them were purchased in Laos markets directly from the artists. They sell for anywhere between $100 to $300 each. With each story cloth added to her collection, “I feel a little more Hmong,” said Gerdner.