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December 17, 2017
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Hmong women. Photograph by Diana Bocco.

In a small village in northern Vietnam, a Hmong woman is working diligently at dyeing a large piece of cloth. The traditional bright indigo, red and blue dyes are the result of ground flowers, roots and fruits, a clear example of the connection tribes still share with the world around them. Like other women in her tribe, she does all the weaving, dyeing and sewing of textiles by hand. The complex weaving skills of the minority tribes have been passed down for generations, but a few years ago, they were at risk of being lost because of economic pressures. 

The minority tribes of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand have suffered financial hardship for years. A 2006 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that 91 per cent of Vietnam's minority tribes lived in poverty in 1998. Part of the reason ethnic minorities in southeast Asia face so much economic hardship is because of their lack of access to basic services. Along with poor levels of education and health care, many tribes face the threat of losing their land to agriculture, deforestation or heavy floods with little government relief aid. This has led to economic development issues as tribes have been hindered from growing and financially prospering.

As a result, many women are forced to leave their village in hopes of finding employment in nearby cities. Once they leave their villages, most of the employment options for tribal minorities involve unskilled day labour in agriculture or construction, usually road building. For many Hmong women, it can often involve making and selling items such as souvenirs and textiles to tourists. While this can help solve the money problems of a single family here and there, it has also led to another problem: the abandonment of many age-old traditions. 

A woman from the Hmong Tribe in Northern
Vietnam sews a bag to sell to tourists.
Photograph by Grace Carter.

However, the Hmong's intricate and timeless craftsmanship has gained widespread attention in recent years through the growing number of Americans, Canadians and Europeans opening textile businesses in southeast Asia. Along with showcasing the beauty of such work to the rest of the world, they also employ local weavers, thereby helping to improve the economic situation amongst minority tribes. 

American weaver Carol Cassidy of Lao Textiles was the first one to open shop in Laos back in 1990. Hers was the first American company to be given a business license in the country after the war in 1975 and probably one of the biggest forces in helping tribal weavers sustain their livelihoods through their traditional skills.

Raising awareness of hand woven tribal textiles has many benefits for the skilled artisans who create them, says Cassidy. "A conscious consumer who cares about the provenance of his purchase has the power to support these producers, to help preserve their traditions and promote sustainable employment. It is a win-win."

There is no question that the current interest in tribal textiles has changed the life of many minority tribes. Tim McLaughlin of Maiwa Handprints Ltd. believes the production of tribal textiles reaffirms the importance of both women and tribal culture. As women become wage earners, their place in both the family and community is elevated, while younger members of the tribe might feel more inclined to wear tribal clothing rather than abandoning their traditions in favour of city living. Suddenly, the skills of the tribe become a reason for pride, rather than something to move away from. 

"In most cases, a high skill level works as a form of trade protection for an artisan," says McLaughlin. "Cheap goods, tribal or otherwise, carry no prestige and are of limited value. They are not desirable as items of trade and are seldom worth the effort needed to produce them." But work that respects the traditional materials and techniques increases the value of traditional craft and the crafters themselves within the global market place.   

It's essential that both designers and crafters avoid the temptation to make quick, mass-produced copies of the textiles...

Designers agree that there's a negative side to this increased interest in tribal textiles. McLaughlin believes it's essential that both designers and crafters avoid the temptation to make quick, mass-produced copies of the textiles, as this can cause the textile to "earn a reputation as a cheap (often touristy) thing that will not command a fair return."

Then there is also the problem of exploitation and loss of cultural identity. Before the renewed interest in tribal textiles, many tribes were selling their family heirloom textiles to collectors and, in the process, selling the collective memory of the tribe. Producing new high-quality items allows tribal members to continue earning a living without sacrificing their cultural heritage whilst doing so. 

For designers such as Cassidy, preservation is directly linked to profitability. "The more interest there is in hand-woven textiles, the more weavers are empowered to continue their traditions and earn a sustainable livelihood." Traditional textiles have always told the story of the beliefs and dreams of a culture. For the first time in history, textiles are also becoming the building blocks of the future for many tribes. Or, as Cassidy puts it, "the DNA of a culture." 

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