This winter, my husband and I spent three weeks traveling through Vietnam. We started in Saigon, city-hopping northwards until we reached Sapa, a town in the hills of the Northernmost section of the country, near the Chinese border. Here, and in the surrounding hills, live a large number of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, previously nomadic groups who settled in the region when regional wars made further movement impossible. This region’s tribes are renowned for their handmade textiles, which are out of this world. The artistry and skill that goes into each piece is something hard to imagine. Even the most mundane piece of daily clothing is museum quality, and durable enough to be used for 30 years before wearing out.
The textiles fall into three general categories, and each tribe specializes with their own patterns and techniques:
(1) Batik — a method of dying in which homemade hemp fabric is covered with designs drawn in wax, then dyed in indigo, before removing the wax. It can take months to a year to grow the hemp, produce the fabric, apply the designs and dye the final product. This method is a hallmark of the Hmong tribes outside of Sapa.
(2) Weaving — intricate patterns are woven on handmade looms, then used for day-to-day attire, ceremonial costumes, and durable textiles. While many tribes utilize weaving to make hemp and cotton fabric, the Lu group is known for their patterned weaving.
(3) Embroidery — silk or cotton threads are used on an indigo-dyed even weave cotton fabric to produce mind boggling patterns. The technique used is meticulous and similar to blackwork for its geometric repetition. By careful design, the pattern is visible on both sides of the fabric and the “backside” is just as neat and beautiful as the front. The Red Dao group are best known for their intricate work.
You can see the microscopic stitches that make up the larger pieces, and realize just how much work goes into each one!