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THE RAINBOW COLLECTION\ COLORFUL EXHIBIT CHRONICLES HMONG TRADITION
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THE RAINBOW COLLECTION\ COLORFUL EXHIBIT CHRONICLES HMONG TRADITION

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A sash in striking shades of green, pink and orange with tiny delicate stitches, a square of appliqued fabric with geometric designs that seem too small to have been cut from cloth, a blue and pink wall hanging with embroidery so exquisite one becomes dizzy when staring at it.

These are just a few examples of the intricate needlework on display through April 15 at the Learning Resources Center on the Rockingham Community College campus. The needlework, called pa'ndau, which means flower cloth, is the traditional textile art of the Hmong tribe of Laos in Southeast Asia.The rainbow collection of more than 20 pa'ndau pieces belongs to Martha Zimmerman of Madison.

``I really like it when people come into the room, look at the pieces and go, 'Ooh,' ' Zimmerman says. ``And almost everybody asks, 'My gosh, how long does it take the Hmong people to do that? How can they see to do that stitch?' '

Zimmerman asked college officials several months ago if she could put up the exhibit, which she hopes will educate people about the Hmong tribe, a nomadic people originally from southern China.

The women and girls of the Hmong tribe produce the pa'ndau, which is made with needle, thread and scissors. No sewing machines or rulers are used.

The designs, which feature the elephant's footprint, the snail, the spider's web and flowers, are based on ancient patterns handed down from mother to daughter for generations.

The three major techniques of the art form are embroidery, applique and reverse applique.

``The traditional colors of the Hmong people are violet, greens, pinks, neon-like colors - colors that make you feel good in your heart,' Zimmerman says. ``But most Americans say they are too loud to wear.'

Americans usually purchase the Hmong art to frame and hang in private homes or offices, Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman got her first look at the intricate, stitched needlework produced by the women of the Hmong Tribe in 1955 while living in Laos with her former husband, an anthropologist who was on a research expedition.

But it wasn't until she returned to the United States 17 years later that she saw a need to collect the tribe's traditional art form.

During the mid-1970s, thousands of Hmong people were driven from Laos because of their support of the United States in the Vietnam War. Most of the men, women and children fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Later, some of them resettled in the United States.

Zimmerman served as a cross-cultural counselor to Hmong immigrants in Madison, Wis., from 1979 to 1990. ``I taught them English and helped establish living arrangements,' Zimmerman says.

At one time, about 6,200 refugees lived in Wisconsin. Although the Hmong people left their homes and possessions behind, they brought with them their artwork, Zimmerman says.

While growing accustomed to a new country, the older Hmong women continued to do their needlework. It was vital during the resettlement period that they used their hands to hang onto a piece of their culture, Zimmerman says.

``In Madison, I ended up being their best customer,' she says. ``I felt as long as they were making the pa'ndau pieces it was good for their health.'

But Zimmerman realized that only the grandmothers and mothers were making the pieces.

``I noticed that the younger daughters were not involved in the process at all. I realized that it was becoming a dying art form,' she says.

Traditionally, Hmong girls learn to do the stitches at age 5 or 6. ``By the time they were 13, 14 and 15 and ready for marriage, the girls would have a couple of suits to take into their marriages,' Zimmerman says.

But the pa'ndau skill is being lost because of the Americanization of the Hmong people.

``The young girls now say they don't have time to take up the art form because of school and homework,' Zimmerman says.

``In Laos, it was tradition for the mothers to make belts for their daughters to wear with outfits on their wedding day. Now they don't want belts. They want to be married in a white wedding dress.'

In order to provide a record for future Hmong generations, Zimmerman has begun documenting her collection of pa'ndau. She has more than 100 pieces of the colorful stitchery.

``I've kept good records of the pieces: who made them, her husband's name and where she was from in Laos. What I want to do one day is make a book so that 20 or 30 years from now when the young people say, 'We had a good culture and it's gone,' they'll have a source,' Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman left most of her Hmong friends in Wisconsin last October when she moved to Rockingham County to be closer to her son, Mark Kaufman of Madison. But she still keeps in touch by telephone and mail.

``So many of these pieces I associate with the women who made them. They're like a part of me,' Zimmerman says.

The skill and time required to produce the pieces are what makes the pa'ndau so unique, says Zimmerman. Often, hundreds of hours of painstaking handiwork goes into making one square.

``What one pays for these things is nowhere near what they are worth,' Zimmerman says.

One publication estimates that a 3-by-3-foot square typically sells for $100 to $150, depending on the complexity of the design.

Zimmerman plans to continue to expand her collection. ``I have a weakness for them. It's my 110 percent interest,' she says.

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