Paj Ntab (flower cloth) is a traditional needlework used to decorate accessories, artwork, souvenirs and the traditional clothing of the Hmong people.
The Hmong are an ethnic group that originated in Southwest China but do not have an official homeland of their own. Today there are Hmong communities all over the world, but in the 1600s many Hmong migrated from China to hilltribe communities in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Traditionally, Hmong girls were taught the art of Paj Ntab embroidery from a young age. More than just a homemaking skill, the embroidery was also a reflection on their suitability for marriage. The philosophy was: the better the stitch, the better the wife. Therefore, learning the art of Paj Ntab (pronounced: pan dau) was an important aspect of Hmong girlhood.
Today much of the elaborate needlework is done by machine. This has made the production of traditional garments easier but has led to a fear that Paj Ntab is quickly becoming a lost art. Still, regardless of who or what has created the clothing or souvenir, there is meaning in every stitch with each symbol representing an aspect of Hmong culture and life.
As traditional dress is typically made before the lunar new year, the symbols chosen may reflect the wearers intentions for the new year. Girls looking for a husband may incorporate the traditional “fish hook” motif into their outfit, while those seeking prosperity might combine the “elephant foot” with the “snail” and the “house” as seen below:
More than just elaborate decoration, it is believed that Paj Ntab may also have been used to retain the Hmong language and history during periods of cultural oppression. By cleverly sewing their history, stories and language into textiles Hmong women ensured their culture remained intact.
Happily, you don’t need to travel to China, Vietnam, Laos or even Northern Thailand to get your hands on Hmong handicrafts. A simple Google search will reveal Etsy shops and online stores that sell Paj Ntab on everything from t-shirts and ties to bookmarks and stickers. A modern solution that keeps the tradition alive until the day we can safely head (back) to China, Vietnam, Laos and Northern Thailand.
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