A proud history of needle and thread

July 05, 2020 - 08:52

The northern province of Ninh Bình is not only known as home of the UNESCO-recognised Tràng An Tourism Complex but also as the birthplace of a whole host of talented people in the craft trade. Centuries of fame have come the way of the delicate products created in Văn Lâm embroidery village.

By Lê Hương & Hồ Hoàng

The northern province of Ninh Bình is not only known as home of the UNESCO-recognised Tràng An Tourism Complex but also as the birthplace of a whole host of talented people in the craft trade.

Centuries of fame have come the way of the delicate products created in Văn Lâm embroidery village.

Located at the entrance to the Tam Cốc - Bích Động Tourism Site in Ninh Hải Commune, Hoa Lư District, the village has long been a special destination for tourists to the province.


Embroider artisans work in Minh Trang company's showroom. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Nguyễn Văn Hoạt, chairman of the Ninh Hải Commune People’s Committee, said there are some 1,200 households with 3,000 people in Văn Lâm Village, many of whom have maintained its traditional craft.

“Children here begin to embroider at the age of seven and villagers of 80 can still hold a needle and thread,” he told Việt Nam News. “In the past few years many people have switched to offering tourism services to earn a better living but still work with the craft in some way.”

Local people say embroidery skills have been handed down through the generations for over 700 years.

During the Trần Dynasty (1225-1400), royal tutor Trần Thủ Độ (1194-1264) trained his army in the Ninh Bình area and his wife Trần Thị Dung (1193-1259) opened classes for people to learn how to embroider.

Embroidering requires great skills and cares. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Villagers then became specialists in embroidering royal costumes and costumes for rituals.

In 1910, under the French colonial time, brothers Đinh Ngọc Hênh and Đinh Ngọc Xoan went to Hà Nội to study French embroidery skills and then passed them on to the village folk.

The village's embroidery artisans have created more lace designs inspired by European tastes since then, according to artisan Vũ Thị Hồng Yến, owner of the Minh Trang Company.

Embroidering skills around holes, which has been learnt from French in early 20th century. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

The local embroidery craft has grown into a selection of thousands of different items, including bedsheets, curtains, tablecloths, placemats, and interior décor items.

The village is now home to nine companies and dozens of workshops gathering together 700 households in the craft. Revenue from the trade each year reaches some VNĐ80-90 billion (US$3.4 million-3.8 million).

Chairman Hoạt said that Văn Lâm was now also combining handicrafts with tourism.

“You can see it along the road leading to Tam Cốc - Bích Động, where there are dozens of shops offering embroidery of various types, like paintings, clothes, and household items,” he said.

Embroidery was recognised by the province as a traditional handicraft in 2006 and in November 2007 the Việt Nam Handicraft Villages Association included Văn Lâm among 12 embroidery trade villages in the country.

Table cloth with embroidery patterns. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Several village elders have earned the title “artisan”, including Chu Văn Lượng and Đinh Văn Uynh, both of whom are over 80 years of age. Three local companies, meanwhile, have been praised for their services to the industry - Minh Trang, Pataco and An Lộc.

“Our commune has introduced a policy of moving away from agriculture but not the homeland,” Hoạt said. “Villagers have continued the craft in Văn Lâm while also offering tourism services.”

The province has set aside a large plot of land near Tam Cốc - Bích Động for a handicraft centre, where local people will be able to show off their embroidery skills and products.

Authorities, however, remain unsure of when the centre may open as there are still obstacles to address.


An embroidery painting by  artisan Vũ Thành Luân. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Vũ Thành Luân, chairman of the village’s Artisans Association, has ten homestay rooms for guests, where they can experience local handicrafts as well as do sightseeing.

They can also try their hand at embroidering and take their creations home.

Maintaining tradition

Ninety per cent of Minh Trang company’s products are now for foreign markets.

“Our fashion items go to Japan, Australia and the UK, while our silk bedding products are sold in South Korea, France, and Spain,” owner Yến said.

A major challenge for the company is that many local people have moved away from tourism and sought jobs in industrial zones.

“We must maintain our team of experienced embroiderers and other skilled workers,” she explained. “If our young people leave, the craft will gradually disappear from our village.”

Her company has teamed up with a local vocational centre for several years to hold training classes for people, including the young, in other communes nearby.

The novel coronavirus outbreak, meanwhile, wreaked havoc on the industry, with overseas orders down by half.

“We have retained a skeleton staff to work on existing orders while we wait for brighter days,” Yến said.

One encouraging sign, however, is that more than a few people have taken up embroidery once again, having lost their jobs in tourism or at industrial zones during the social distancing measures introduced to tackle the pandemic.

“The traditional handicraft still has a role to play in our village,” she said. “It has given us a stable living and come to our rescue during the difficult days of COVID-19.”

She hopes the State and local authorities will be able to introduce policies favourable to companies like hers, so that they can continue to provide jobs while maintaining the culture and history of the area and the craft.

Đinh Thị Mai, who was born in the village and now runs a shop selling embroidery in Hàng Gai Street in downtown Hà Nội, said the artisans of Văn Lâm picked up techniques from the French but are now far superior in terms of designs.

“Many foreign customers place orders at my store and are surprised to receive goods that far exceed their expectations,” she said. “I’m very proud of the people in my homeland.”

Embroidery handicraft brings stable income to locals in Văn Lâm Village. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

After more than 20 years in the field, Luân feels fortunate to have been born into a family where a traditional handicraft is handed down.

His company’s products are mostly exported to Japan and France.

“Not being able to hand down the craft to the young of our village would be a great regret,” he said. “Our family continued to embroider even during the American bombings of North Việt Nam, working under the light of oil lamps.”

The village’s products are more varied in form and artistic style than similar products from elsewhere, as the people of Văn Lâm combine traditional Vietnamese skills with French skills to make works of art.

“An artisan must have not only a good eye but also experience and passion to create striking products,” he said. “For example, in an embroidered painting of a rooster, the artisan must know where each coloured thread goes, how to make its feathers look shiny and colourful, and how to make its eyes brighter.”

The association, Luân said, is doing what it can to attract young people to the art so the tradition stays alive, like offering training courses, while tourism also represents a way forward. VNS