Upon a rainy day in Hanoi, Vietnam, but a couple of months ago I ventured off to The Vietnamese Women's Museum on recommendation by a few fellow travellers who were most impressed by the exhibitions. Being a culture junkie and ethnic textile enthusiast, I found myself positively in textbook heaven upon reaching the fourth floor, dedicated entirely to 'Womens Fashion's' of Vietnam's indigenous populations.
Having recently ventured into the depths of Laos and, previously, northern Thailand,I have a well established appreciation for the creative zeal of South East Asia's tribal minorities. In 2007 I trekked into the mountains of northern Thailand, spending a few days emersed in the fascinating culture of the Akha and Lisu groups whilst staying with them in their respective hill tribe villages. I was blown away by the abundance of dazzling embellishments, colour saturated appliqué and awesome oversized jewellery. Basically, it got me hooked.
As with many long standing indigenous cultures, handcrafted textiles, jewellery, headdresses and other such adornments are highly prized not just by the groups themselves, whose women perfect and pass on such traditional artistry from early childhood well into their adult lives, but by designer's and collectors around the world. But for the majority, who are relatively unexposed to such cultures, dedicated museum exhibitions such as this one are tremendously important. Set in place to both reach out and excite audiences, their role as an educative tool also draws attention to the fact that these diverse cultures, indigenous populations whose traditions stem back far beyond our own, are under threat from the pitfalls of the modern world.
As a designer myself I never fail to be captivated, inspired and impressed by the diversity and beauty interwoven within the wealth of techniques, patterns, motifs and styles of these tribal communities. I can't stress how important it is for us to help conserve the traditions of cultures like this all over the world, especially to the creative communities amongst us for whom these cultures can provide endless inspiration. Thus so I have put together this (super long!) post, with a few notes from the exhibition, in the hope that all of you may too be dazzled and intrigued by the beautiful handcrafted creations of these enterprising communities.
Like many indigenous cultures around the world, a women's skills end experience are judged by the amount and quality of the textiles shes makes. Unfortunately nowadays this practice is becoming less and less important as more efficient, hard-wearing chemical dyes and sewing machines have overtaken the traditional craft of loom weaving along with the modernisation of traditional costumes to the point where they are often now only worn for ceremonial occasions.
Within the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam cotton is the most popular fabric and while natural silk is usually reserved for festive costumes and appliqué, Hmong women mostly use fabric woven from hemp, which is then dyed with indigo.
Pathen, Flower Lolo and Flower Hmong traditionally have very colourful clothing and complex sewing techniques. The Yao and Phula peoples favour embroidery; Lolo and Pupeo, appliqué; Hmong and Yao Tien, batik; Thai and Khmer, ikat, and the Muong, Tay and populations of the High Plateau prefer woven patterns. Patterns and motifs generally vary with geographical location, traditional tribal identities and local landscapes.
Used by the Hmong and Yao Tien.
Designs and patterns are drawn onto fabric using melted wax. When the wax is dry the fabric is dyed several times in indigo baths then immersed in boiling water to melt the wax. The protected patterns appear as a light colour on an indigo background. This ankle length pleated skirt shown below is a typical example of traditional Hmong batik application.
Used by the Black Thai, the Khmer and the Bahnar to create patterns with beautiful soft outlines.
Ikat is a dye technique like batik, but instead of protecting the fabric before the dyeing process, the threads are protected instead. Some threads are tied up with plant or nylon fibres to protect them from the dyeing process which is usually repeated several times to obtain a multicoloured thread that is used for the weft during weaving. In some regions chain ikat is also used.
Used by indigenous populations in the Nothern Mountains of Vietnam.
Small pieces of coloured fabric are sewn onto a background to create patterns. Various coloured fabrics are cut into geometrical forms and sewn on to the fabric while the threads are hidden behind appliqué. Each group specialises in its own traditional patterns such as the Hmong, who use a very elaborate technique called reverse appliqué where the top layer of fabric is cut into patterns to reveal the colour of the backing fabric.
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Hats, headdresses and turbans are also worn for ornamental effect. The Yao Thang Y and the Yao Lan Ten wear headdresses covered with silver or aluminium coins, the Red Yao of Lao Cai wear turbans folded as headdresses, the Red Yao of Lang Son and Cao Bang wear long turbans folded into a flat shape to protect against bad spirits or to bring good fortune while others use it to show social status.
Some women in the High Plateau wear large copper spirals on their wrists and ankles, and necklaces made from multicoloured beads or agate. Earrings are usually made from ivory, bone or bamboo. Women in the northern mountains prefer silk jewellery, which is often patterned with geometrical or nature-inspired patterns while Torque neckpiece-ends feature bird or snake heads. The Kinh majority prefer gold, silver or jade. In all groups jewellery is worn to protect against bad spirits or to bring good fortune while others also use it to show social status.