Tcheu Siong – the spirit of H’Mong Embroidery

Tcheu Siong “The Genie Behind the Scissors” Exhibition at Project Space, Luang Prabang, 2010

Tcheu Siong is a H’Mong woman who grew up two hours north of Luang Prabang in a traditional village. There she learned all the traditional cross stitch and applique techniques from her mother. In 1996 her family was removed from their country and brought to Luang Prabang as part of the government integration program. The following year in 1997 she began to sell her handmade textiles in the market and then from 2002 sold textiles to tourists with other H’Mong women in the night market.
Although she can embroider, she prefers applique as a way of working – cutting different colours of cloth and stitching onto a background. From 2007 she decided to work on large panels, leaving behind the traditional motifs and working from her imagination. Her husband, a shaman, identifies characters, their names and motifs and her daughter helps with cutting out the shapes.
Paper patterns are made for the figures and these are placed on folded fabric to cut multiples. These can be separated or used as mirror images in the work and they have smaller images and embroidered motifs added. The composition is worked out by arranging all the pieces on the base cloth. Small straight stitches, sometimes couching down a coloured yarn outline the cut-out shapes and attach them to the background fabric. From 2009 borders were added with repeat patterns of people/stars/triangles and backing fabric was sewn on.
Large textile pieces have been made as bedspreads and wall hangings by many H’Mong women to sell in the market. They usually follow traditional geometric patterns in applique or they are figurative embroidered narratives. Tcheu Siong’s work is distinctly different and she says that the characters come from dreams and visions. Working with her husband she describes a spirit world in fabric, now displayed as art on white gallery walls – a legacy of ancient culture and beliefs she hopes to pass on to her daughter.

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Contact@projectspace-luangprabang.com
Catalogue Text Michele-baj strobel

Nithakhong Somsanith – Gold Embroiderer

Nithakhong Somsanith was born in Laos in 1959 and as a member of the Lao Royal family he learned the courtly tradition of gold and silver thread embroidery , Silapa pak dinh from his grandmother. Sumptuous costumes were woven and embroidered for the royal family: invested symbols of status, power and spiritual meaning.

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After the abolition of royalty the courtly crafts declined as they were seen to be ostentatious and irrelevant to the ideals of the new government.
In 1985 Somsanith went to study in France but returned to Laos to promote traditional arts and continue embroidery. Between 2004 and 2008 Nith participated in a contemporary art project “The Quiet in the Land”, collaborating with Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le insert e acute. Together they produced a series of work exploring issues around tradition and modernisation in Luang Prabang. Le made a series of computer aided drawings focussing on continuing culture and introduced technologies. Somsanith worked on translating the images into fabric and thread, dealing with challenges of scale and interpretation of non-traditional motifs. “The Banners of Luang Prabang”, 2005 has over 40 funeral banners embroidered in silver and gold evoking the death of traditions. “Inner Self and Outer World”, 2005 focuses on meditation huts and contrasts with a mass of satellite dishes mounted on tall poles. The work represents the quiet reflection of monks and the influx of information about the outside world through tv. In the third work “The Blessing of the Land”, 2006 the traditional hang lin vessel used to sprinkle holy water in ceremonies has a profusion of water raining down on the community expressing the struggle with tradition and modernity. This project moved the traditional embroidery into a contemporary art context.

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In addition, new markets are opening up for wedding and special occasion attire, objects used in Buddhist rituals and tourist products. The metallic thread work although no longer associated with royalty continues to mark ceremonial occasions and is symbolic of wealth and status.
Also part of The Quiet in the Land’s 3rd project was the collaboration between artist Janine Antoni and H’Mong embroiderers Mo Ly and Xia Song resulting in the dialogue in fabric and stitch “To Ply”, 2006.
Antoni showed H’Mong minority women in the Luang Prabang market needlework that her grandmother had made and instantly formed a connection through their mutual interest in textiles. She spent time learning H’Mong stitching and telling stories with the women in the market and later exchanged and responded to each other’s work. The resulting pieces of textiles encompass both western contemporary embroidery and the conventions of H’Mong embroidery, applique and story cloths. The work sits within a contemporary art framework, far removed from the work the women sell in the market to tourists.

The Quiet in the Land. A project by France Morin. Catalogue edited by France Morin and John Alan Farmer.
Published by The Quiet in the Land Inc. NY NY 2009 see page 213 artist travellers order for library.

Botanical Art in Luang Prabang

Following my interest in botanical art, I decided to draw in the gardens of Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre on the banks of the Mekong. From a piece of land that was a blank canvas the gardens have been developed to provide a lush backdrop to the textile activities, but they also inform visitors about plants used for natural dying. The Sappan gives pink, red and purple; fresh indigo – green and processed indigo a range of blues; the Indian trumpet produces olives and many more plants add to the palette. As the gardener waters the plants at the end of the afternoon, I appreciate the tranquillity and dedication required to create the beautiful space.

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Top 5 Textile things to do in Luang Prabang

Top 5 Textile things to do in Luang Prabang

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1. Visit gold and silver embroidery, Silapa pak dinh, workshops.
Once the practice of artisans working for the royal family, this art form now continues to adorn special clothing for weddings and other occasions, Buddhist ritual objects and it is also made for sale to tourists. You can see men and women working on fabric stretched on low frames, stitching and couching the metallic threads over paper templates.
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gold embroidery
Top 5 textileLPB

2. Look at the clothing that monks wear.
It was defined by the Buddha…the number of pieces, type, colour and sizes. No blue is worn, (which as a natural colour would have been made from Indigo), but a range of yellows, oranges and rust-browns originally from natural dyes but now from commercial dyes are used. There are prescribed ways of wearing, folding and storing robes and monks always look neatly and modestly dressed.
Originally followers were told to make their robes from discarded fabrics, patching and piecing them together. Now clothing is purchased from the market and given to monks or women make new sets for monks to gain merit.

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Illustration by Issared Wongsing

3. Search for temple banners attached to the top of bamboo poles wafting in the breeze.
They are handmade and placed at the temple by family when someone dies. Cut out metallic paper decorations catch the light and tassels of fabric strips flutter on the sides. Carved wooden fish/birds or planes at the top or bottom are symbolic of the deceased’s journey into the next world.

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4. Check out the latest fashion in sinhs( the Lao tubular skirt).
This garment is worn by schoolgirls as their uniform, by women at work and on formal occasions. It is considered proper attire and men think Lao and foreign women look very beautiful in the sinh. There is a wide range of patterns and styles of fabric and each year the preferred styles change as the fashion develops for more or less pattern, cotton or silk, woven or dyed patterns and longer or shorter hemlines. This year there are many women wearing sinhs with metallic woven hem pieces.

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5. Support the local economy by buying textiles handmade in Luang Prabang.
Identify products in the night market and shops through signs and stickers produced as an initiative of the Luang Prabang Handicraft Association in conjunction with the Ministry of Science and Technology. Purchases of authentic handmade items support local people and preserve the craft traditions and heritage. You get to take home a little piece of Laos that will hold your memories.

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New Textiles business in Laos

In January 2014 I visited a new H’Mong Textiles Factory.
This Chinese-Lao business is the first of its kind in Luang Prabang. Established in 2013 it employs 50 young H’Mong women as embroiderers and machinists making garments. The hand embroidery draws on traditional skills but the designs are contemporary and made to be included in fashion garments. In the garment construction area, very large, tartan fabric raincoats for very large dogs were being produced. The work is time-consuming so costly to produce: as wages rise in China, Lao workers are employed on lower rates of pay to keep the cost of production down. This kind of work is new to H’Mong women who require training in working specific embroidery designs and using industrial sewing machines. The concept of working set hours in a factory away from their traditional family and village life is also very different for them.

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Travel to Ha Giang in N W Vietnam

This year I was able to go on an exploratory research trip to the far north west of Vietnam. It is an area I have wanted to visit for many years because of the fabulous minority textiles and costume. Travelling in winter, everyone was well rugged up, so we saw lots of modern Chinese parkas, but also met people who still make their own traditional clothing with spectacular textiles – as good as the examples I love in the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi. The Lo Lo wedding outfit was a mass of tiny coloured patches applied to a base cloth. Stunning to see worn to show us. In the many mountain markets we enjoyed seeing daily life as people shopped for fresh produce, traded their animals, drank local liquor and then walked miles up the mountain slopes back to their homes.

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Leading the first Active Travel Textile Tour of Orissa

In April 2014 I lead the textile tour to Orissa in India. the state is known for its hand-woven sari in ikat and supplementary weaving. We travelled north and west in the state to see people weaving in villages and co-operatives and also visited several minority villages. Seeing people continue their traditions and maintain their craft was inspiring but at the same time raised many issues. Although the government supports the weavers, they only receive a meagre income for their work and many people are choosing to go to work in factories to earn money. Mass produced textiles compete with the hand-made products and in one village people were afraid that we had come to steal their design to have it made in a factory. There is so much scope for development of the weaving industry as the crafts people are skilled and knowledgeable. Could new designs, marketing and quality control reach new markets and bring better returns to communities?
The journey was amazing: unforgettable people and places, wonderful spicy Indian food, we learned so much and were enriched by the experience.

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