Like all textiles producers in Laos, the Hmong make items for the household, for clothing and for ceremonial purposes. We have to admit that for us, one of their most striking textiles is Hmong Batik. At our Living Crafts Centre, Mae Zuzong, our resident Batik Teacher, guides our visiting guests through the Hmong Batik techniques. But since you can’t come to us at the moment, we thought we could come to you… and share how Hmong Batik comes to life.
Textiles drying in the gardens of our Living Crafts Centre in Ban Saylom is a common feature. One could think that we’re used to it, that we’re even blasé but we’re not. Day after day, it’s still a delight to see those bright bundles of silk hanging to dry. But we have to admit that meters and meters of Hmong Batik are somehow even more attractive. And when you stop to admire them, you can even smell the indigo. Some would call it a perfume, others a smell. One sure thing is that it’s quite distinctive. But you’re not here to hear us rave about how we love Hmong Batik. You want to know how it’s made, right? Follow us!
The inspiration for motifs is derived from the natural environment…
Batik is a resist dye technique. With dexterity, motifs are drawn with wax on the cloth which is then dipped in dye. As intended, the wax drawn motifs resist the dye. The cloth is then boiled in water to remove the wax. This technique has been practiced for over a thousand years from South America to Africa; Indonesia is accredited with its origin. Hmong batik is striking; the long blue and white cloths are used for making shirts, baby carriers and blankets. Nowadays, it is used to make a variety of products where tradition meets innovation.
Unlike many languages, Hmong doesn’t have a written form, thus textiles have become a form of visual expression. The inspiration for motifs is derived from the natural environment, such as snail shells, animal teeth, ferns, cucumber, rice seeds and pumpkin seeds. Traditionally, the fabric of choice would be hemp. Nowadays, as they move down from the highlands, many Hmong use cotton or synthetic fabrics/cloths. However, hemp is still cultivated by many Blue Hmong in northern Laos. Making hemp fabric is a laborious process, but the end result is a strong durable cloth with qualities similar to linen.
Hmong Batik Techniques in brief
But how does one go about to make Hmong Batik, you ask? It all starts with the hemp cloth being smoothed with a stone and scored in a grid making it easier to draw the symmetrical patterns. Bee’s wax, collected from the forests, is heated in a small metal pot and mixed with indigo paste (which colours the wax and makes it easier to see on the cloth). Bamboo pens with metal nibs are used for drawing the wax onto the hemp. The wax marks will resist the dye when the cloth is dipped in the indigo pot and left to dry.
To achieve dark shades of blue a cloth is dyed more than 20 times over a period of two weeks. When the cloth is drying in the sun, care must be taken that the wax doesn’t melt. After the last dye bath has been completed, the cloth is boiled to remove the wax. The batik process is finished: bold designs in white are set against shades of blue indigo.
Batik (and embroidery) skills are passed down from mother to daughter. Girls first learn to embroider, followed by appliqué and finally batik. Like many women in Laos, a girl’s success in getting married will depend upon her skill with a needle, shuttle or in the case of batik, a pen.
Update: Watch this video for a closer look at how the hmong batik technique is practiced by Hmong artisans.