Hemp and Indigo: Weaving and Dyeing within the Black Hmong Tradition

Nestled high in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, the picturesque town of Sapa was originally established by the French as a hill station retreat. Although it is now a well-worn spot on the package-tourists’ map, the town’s scenic backdrop of cloud-covered mountain peaks and cascading emerald valleys is completely unspoiled, and on a clear day, absolutely breathtaking.

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One the most interesting aspects of spending time in Sapa is the prevalence of the Black Hmong people, who often trek for hours from their small hillside villages to take advantage of the economic opportunities that Sapa and its tourist industry has to offer. Characterized by their traditional dress, which is woven by hand from locally cultivated hemp and dyed a deep indigo colour using age-old techniques, this ancient tribe began migrating to the area from Southern China over 250 years ago, and now makes up over 50% of the district’s population.

 

The production of hemp cloth is considered solely women’s work, and begins with the harvesting of the male hemp stalks once they reach between 30 and 40 cm in height. The stalks are then tied into bundles and left in the sun to dry before the outer layer or ‘baste fibre’ can be stripped off. Once stripped, the lengths of fibre are joined by hand to form a thread ready for weaving. Using a wooden loom with a bamboo reed, the Black Hmong women usually weave between 8 and 10 metres of hemp cloth, which can then be treated with wax to form a batik pattern before being dipped into the indigo dye.

The dye is a natural compound extracted from the leaves of the indigo plant, which is native to the area and grown in small plots of land surrounding the local villages. When the leaves are fermented and allowed to oxidize, they produce a blue powder. A combination of lime and rice wine is then added to the powder to make the dye soluble in water. At this stage the hemp is immersed into the dye bath and worked for half-an-hour, before being hung up to oxidize. To achieve the deep blue that is characteristic of the Black Hmong traditional dress, this process is repeated twice a day for up to a month.

Once the desired hue is achieved and the cloth has undergone a finishing process known as ‘Beetling’, treadle machines are used to sew the main seams of the garments worn by the Black Hmong people- predominately jackets, waistcoats, trousers and skirts. The intricate embroidery and applique that is used to embellish the fabric is still traditionally sewn by hand, and is cause for competition among the women, for whom the quality of their embroidery is a matter of pride.

The advent of tourism in recent years has already begun to alter the way the Black Hmong people produce and use hemp cloth, and it is now becoming more common for multi-coloured chemical dyes and machine embroidery to be utilized in the production process. The more eye-catching versions of the traditional indigo hemp are used to create attractive souvenirs for tourists, like purses, bags and blankets, which are often displayed in rainbow-like fashion along the market streets of Sapa. Although the increase in wealth to the area is improving the quality of life for the Black Hmong people, there is a need for visitors to help encourage and preserve this important textile heritage to prevent it becoming lost in the passage of time.