Hmong Paj Ntaub:
Using Textile Arts to Teach Young Children about Cultures
In many cultures, people use fabric, yarn, thread, and other materials available locally to create designs on cloth. These textile artists, who are frequently women, apply a variety of techniques in creating their designs. Such works of art often express perspectives on culture and historyóincluding their daily activities, ceremonies and values, and struggles for survival of their people.
Textile arts offer rich opportunities for helping students to understand other cultures. They can be used to illustrate various thematic strands contained in the NCSS Standards.1 Textile arts reflect the cultures in which they are created, and can help introduce students to various components of culture (1 Culture). Textile arts provide a resource for understanding the history of people within a culture, and offer invaluable depictions of the past for cultures that rely on strong oral traditions (2 Time, Continuity, and Change). Textile arts, which combine the human desire to create beauty with the human need to sell products in order to gain a livelihood, can also illustrate the changing economic conditions of people within a culture (7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption).
This article describes the use of a particular form of textile artóHmong paj ntaubóto engage elementary students in learning about the culture and history of the Hmong people of Laos, and the economic situation of some recent Hmong immigrants to the United States.
Hmong Paj Ntaub
The Hmong, a mountain people of Laos, constitute an ethnic minority within that Southeast Asian nation. The Hmong have practiced their traditional occupation of farming in the northern provinces of Laos since the mid-1800s. The Hmong culture was severely disrupted when Laos became a battleground in the Vietnam War. Because they sided with American forces against the Pathet Lao (Communist Laotians), Hmong villages were overrun by North Vietnamese troops at the warís end. Many Hmongs were imprisoned in concentration camps, while others made their way to refugee camps in Thailand, and thence to the United States.
Paj ntaub, a form of stitchery, is a traditional art of the Hmong people. It has been used customarily to create designs on both story cloths and articles of clothing. In using paj ntaub to teach about Hmong culture, I begin with story cloths and ask students the following questions to promote inquiry:
n What do you think is going on in this story cloth?
n What do you think the artist is trying to represent?
n Why do you think the artist created this story cloth?
n What can you learn from it?
After students offer their ideas about the story cloth to each other, a Hmong guest speaker helps me to elaborate on the student interpretations. Students then use related books, including the childrenís picture books Diaís Story Cloth and The Whispering Cloth, to learn more about Hmong art and culture.
Some of the story cloths used in class portray the traditional life of the Hmong people in Laos. They show the Hmong living in small villages and using simple tools to grow and harvest crops, process foods, and raise animals. Other story cloths by the Hmong immigrants represent the effects of the Vietnam Waróincluding the destruction of their homes and fields, ground warfare between Laotian and Vietnamese soldiers, and planes dropping bombs on their villages. Still other story cloths depict the Hmong escaping from Laos across the Mekong River to enter refugee camps in Thailand beginning in 1975.
After the class has studied these story cloths, I introduce another element of Hmong paj ntaubóspecial designs stitched on clothing that have historically represented the Hmongsí cultural identity. Another guest speaker explains the traditional clothing her daughters wear to celebrate the Hmong New Year here in the United States. I expand on this by showing slides of the everyday clothing worn by Hmong women in Laos.
There are two main subgroups among the Hmong: the Blue/Green or Colored Hmong and the White Hmong. The Blue/Green Hmong women wear colorful, appliqued, batik pleated skirts, while the White Hmong women wear black pants and shirts embellished with paj ntaub on the shirt collars.2 At the New Year, it is customary for each family member to wear a new outfit for the holiday celebration. Among the Hmong who escaped to Thailand, everyday clothing began to be influenced by Thai fashion, but most Hmong have retained their traditional clothing for New Year celebrations.
A third type of paj ntaub illustrates the current use of this art to supplement the Hmong refugee economy. Clothing items with paj ntaub designs adapted to Thai tastes emerged when the Hmong became refugees there immediately after the Vietnam War.3 Hmong textile artists in the United States have continued to adapt traditional designsóbut now to meet the tastes of Western consumersóin order to supplement the family income. Typically, they are women who earn a minimal hourly wage by selling their textile arts.4
Western taste calls for more muted colors in paj ntaub. One popular form involves flower cloths using reverse applique and containing such abstract designs as the ìelephantís footî or the ìspider web.î Story cloth designs are being used to decorate t-shirts and sweat shirts, bedspreads, pillow covers, aprons, and wall hangings.
Textile arts can be an effective way to engage students in learning about Hmong culture and history. Using story cloths as the basis for social studies inquiry caused my students to think deeply about how this art should be interpreted. Better still, it made them question their own interpretations and seek more knowledge about Hmong culture and history. They came to find Hmong paj ntaub visually appealing, to appreciate the expertise needed to create them, and to feel empathy with the creators and their struggles to adapt to life in not one but two new countries.
Introducing Other Textile Arts
The Hmong paj ntaub activity provides one example of using textile arts to help students better understand other cultures and historical experiences. There are many good resources for extending this activity. Quilting the World Over is a valuable introduction to the textile arts of different cultures.5 This book offers brief explanations, visuals, and suggested readings about textile arts created by peoples from, among other places, Tahiti, Japan, Laos, India, Italy, France, Chile, Panama, and such American subcultures as Native Hawaiians, the Seminoles, and the Amish.
Teachers who are dealing with the cultures of Chile, Peru, and Colombia, for example, might use the section on arpilleras, fabric pictures created from inexpensive materials to generate income for families. These fabric pictures include scenes of the physical landscape, traditional life, and peopleís economic hardships. The childrenís picture book Tonight is Carnival is illustrated with photographs of arpilleras depicting such aspects of traditional Peruvian life as farming, cooking, gathering wood, selling products at the market, and celebrating carnival. There are many other childrenís books illustrated with traditional forms of artóincluding the textile arts.
Teachers may discover other resources in organizations dedicated to assisting in the economic survival of different culture groups. College or university campus organizations that support students from different countries may also be excellent resources for finding artists and other guest speakers. Local art or craft fairs are another possible avenue for meeting textile artists.
A computer search is the best way to identify print and audiovisual resources about the textile arts. Begin by searching different databases using the name of the country or cultural group as the key descriptor; this should provide at least background knowledge about the particular culture. The term ìartî may be added to the name of the country or cultural group in the search for more specific materials.
Textile arts have the potential to engage students actively in the study of cultures, their histories, and their economics.6 The designs of textile arts offer students the chance to inquire into the meanings they portray. Textile arts can be engaging for all students, and may be of special value in meeting the needs of visual and wholistic learners.7 They may shed the most light on the perspectives of women, who make up the largest number of textile artists. They can also provide a model for class projects that help to integrate different parts of the elementary curriculum. v
1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).
2. Lue Vang and Judy Lewis, Grandmotherís Path Grandfatherís Way, 2nd ed. (Rancho Cordova, CA: Authors, 1990).
3. Peter Roop and Connie Roop, The Hmong in America: We Sought Refuge Here (Appleton, WI: Appleton Area School District, 1990).
4. Simon Fass, ìInnovations in the Struggle for Self-Reliance: The Hmong Experience in the United States,î IMR 20 (1986): 351-380; George M. Scott, Jr., ìThe Advent of a Cottage Industry of Hmong Paj Ntaub Textiles in Southern California: The Roles of an Entrepreneur-Patron, an Applied Anthropologist-Broker, and A Shopping Mall Sale,î Human Organization 51 (1992): 284-298.
5. Willow Ann Soltow, Quilting the World Over (Radnor, PA: Chilton, 1991).
6. Douglas Selwyn, Arts & Humanities in the Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1995).
7. Ibid.; Cynthia Szymanski Sunal and Barbara Ann Hatcher, How to Do It: Studying History through Art (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1986).
Cha, Dia. Diaís Story Cloth: The Hmong Peopleís Journey of Freedom. New York: Lee & Low, 1996.
Dorros, Arthur. Tonight is Carnival. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Shea, Pegi Dietz. The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee Story. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press, 1995.
Ava McCall is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.