The Mông, and the fabric of their life

November 20, 2016 - 09:00

Making beautiful garments with flax has for long been a way of life for the Mông; now, it is offering them a stable livelihood, Lương Thu Hương reports.

Tricky technique: A foreigner tries weaving linen cloth with a traditional loom of the Mông people. Photo
Viet Nam News

Making beautiful garments with flax has for long been a way of life for the Mông; now, it is offering them a stable livelihood, Lương Thu Hương reports.

Linen has been the fabric of life for the Mông people in Hà Giang Province for a long, long time.

The ingenuity of this ethnic minority in making this fabric from scratch, dyeing it with different colours using no chemicals, and making beautiful garments has turned every Mông woman into a colourful flower blooming amidst the rocky mountains they call home.

In the past, most linen garments, which take years to finish, were tailored for members within just one family, but over the years, as more people discover the beauty of the fabric and the work done on it, a joint effort is being made to widen its reach.

The Hợp Tiến Linen Co-operative in Lùng Tám Village, Quản Bạ District, is one of the spearheads of this effort, and it has succeeded in marketing the linen garments to the lowlands and beyond the country’s borders.

“Linen is the treasure of Lùng Tám Village,” said Vàng Thị Mai, who heads the co-operative. “Throughout Hà Giang Province, as long as there are Mông People, there will be linen. However, it is Lùng Tám Village that has succeeded in preserving, promoting and making our traditional products flourish.”

At present, the co-operative has 130 traditional looms, creating jobs for 135 people, both villagers and others in the vicinity. All its nine production groups are based in Lùng Tám, with every household getting involved in one stage or other of the production process.

Colours and shapes: The patterns of the linen products by Hợp Tiến Cooperative were inherited from those of their ancestors. VNS Photo Trương Vị

“Mông people in the village are very happy and not anxious anymore, because our traditional job has been successfully restored and developed, and we are able to introduce one of our culture to both domestic and international friends,” Mai said.

The Hợp Tiến Co-operative makes more than traditional clothes. Using the traditional textiles and patterns that have been passed down from their ancestors, they have creatively produced a variety of modern household decorative items like pillow cases, wallets, curtains and tablecloth.

Making the fabric is a lot of work. Mai said the whole process includes more than 21 stages, all of which are done manually.

First, the flax plants are planted and tended on the most fertile farmland. They are harvested after over two months and dried to make threads. When splitting the threads to get the sheaths, the Mông woman has to be extremely careful in order to acquire threads of the same lengths and not break them halfway.

The flax sheaths, bound in sheaves, will be crushed in stone mortars to soften them, until only the tough threads remain. These will be bound once again to make longer threads. After boiling them several times in water mixed with ash and bee wax, the linen threads become softer and whiter. This is when the Mông women bring their looms into play.

Proud of the work: Villager Sùng Thị Dính shows the products of the cooperative to visitors. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The cloth that is woven will be washed again to whiten them as much as possible. The next step is spreading the cloth on to logs and flattening them with flagstones that have been scraped with bee wax.

The colouring stage is also a meticulous process. The cloth is dyed with natural colours of extracted from local plants. In order to get the correct shade of indigo black, the weavers have to dye the cloth several times over several days. The cloth is submerged in the dye for about an hour, drained and submerged again. This happens five to six times, or even more.

The colours of the cloth are determined significantly by weather conditions. If it is sunny, it takes from three to four days to finish dyeing the cloth, but if it rains, the process can take up to two months.

“Despite all the hardship, it is the natural colours and handmade production that make our products unique,” Mai said.

Reviving a tradition

Mai says every member of the Hợp Tiến Co-operative has worked hard and dedicated themselves to the success of restoring the community’s traditional skill.

Having been the chairwoman of the commune women’s association for more than 20 years (1989 – 2006), Mai understands well the difficult lives that Mông women have experienced.

“The villagers used to live in great poverty. No matter how hard they worked, both at home and on the farm, they were still poor,” the 54-year-old artisan recalled.

Variety: The products of Hợp Tiến Cooperative include not only traditional clothes but also a variety of household and decorative items like handbags, tablecloths, curtains, and wallets. VNSPhoto Trương Vị

“Mông women are not only industrious but also skillful. At the age of 13, besides helping their families work on the farm, they have been able to spin, weave, embroider or sew. I thought, why we can’t we weave our fabric to sell to others and better our lives?”

The traditional weaving tradition of the Mông was struggling against the appearance of modern clothes in their markets towards the end of the 1990s. Young girls did not stick to the habit of working on the looms like their ancestors and fewer women were wearing their traditional, homemade dresses. The skill of weaving, passed through generations, faced the risk of disappearing.

Wanting to preserve the cultural treasures of her community and to improve their living standards, Mai, with the support of her husband, encouraged other villagers to contribute funds to establish and join the Hợp Tiến Linen Weaving Centre, which was set up in her house in 1998. There were barely 10 members then.

In 2000, Mai received support from a project aiming to preserve and develop traditional craft villages, launched under a co-operation programme between Vietnam and Sweden.

A year later, in 2001, her efforts received another boost when the local People’s Committee allocated land for setting up the Hợp Tiến Linen Weaving Co-operative, enabling the construction of a workshop, helping stabilising production.

Soon, Mai realised that it was not enough to produce, the products had to be marketed.

“At first, I travelled down the mountains alone, bringing the products along with me, to join many trade fairs in Hà Nội and introduce them to potential customers,” Mai said.

The opportunities to visit various souvenir, art and handicraft shops made her more aware of what the market demanded, what would sell.

“We needed to make many more products of better quality, adding souvenir items like scarves, handbags and tablecloth.

“International visitors, particularly those from Japan, French and Canada, enjoy our line of products and their indigo colour.”

Many of them have travelled long distances to reach Lùng Tám Village and signed long-term contracts with the co-operative.

Outside support

To sustain its growth, the Hợp Tiến Cooperative has collaborated with the Centre for Development Support of Vietnamese Trade Villages and Craftlink (a not-for-profit organisation seeking new markets for traditional artisans) to promote and introduce their linen to international markets.

The demand for the linen products of high quality and unique patterns increased rapidly, together with the number of villagers joining the cooperative.

Preparations: Linen threads are dried before being dyed. VNS Photo Trương Vị

A co-operation agreement with Association Batik International, a French organisation focusing on vocational training, has opened a new page in the development of the co-operative. Under the agreement, its members have the opportunity to get more training and enhance their skills, enabling them to make products more beautiful and of higher quality.

At present, the co-operative’s traditional linen products are sold in souvenir stores throughout Việt Nam, including in prestigious hotels like Nikko and Horison. They are also found in some outlets in France, Japan, Canada, Britain and Switzerland.

Co-operative members are happy to see their traditional skill thrive and happier that it provides them with a decent income.

 “Working in the co-operative provides me with a stable income of about VNĐ2.3 million (US$100 approx) per month after harvest,” said Sùng Thị Mị.

“I do not have to travel far to work anymore and my children can attend school.”

The best news is that more and more Mông girls have become interested in weaving, and this enables them to support their families financially.

Hạng Dương Thành, vice chairman of the Quản Bạ District People’s Committee, said the administration was taking the first steps towards developing community-based tourism in Lùng Tám Village.

“This will offer an opportunity for visitors to experience local life as they discover the Hà Giang Stone Plateau.

“Traditional linen products of the village will become souvenirs that travel to different countries, bearing features of highland cultures.” VNS


Spinning jenny: Villager Sùng Thị Dính works with a traditional loom. VNS Photo Trương Vị
Detailed: Villager Sùng Thị Mị sews a design on a linen cloth. VNS Photo Trương Vị