Tribal and ethnic prints are everywhere. Fashion and design are deeply embedded in my roots as a Hmong American. Hmong women have designed and sewn their own clothing for thousands of years. I started cross-stitching in first grade and watched my mother sew all our traditional Hmong clothes for the annual Hmong New Year’s Festival. Today, you can find Hmong-inspired jewelry and fashion almost everywhere. When I was a young girl, sewing with my mom, sisters and cousins were special bonding moments. It’s when we shared secrets, gossiped and traded patterns. Below is a piece I made in collaboration by my mom and sister.
All over the Internet from Etsy to Instagram, third parties sell authentic Hmong text tiles from Vietnam, Thailand and other parts of Asia. I wonder if these third parties are making a profit. These third parties are sometimes travelers and most of the time boutique shops. When I see these familiar items being sold online at high prices, I can’t help but feel hurt, upset and a little betrayed. Are the women and young girls who created these beautiful purses, earrings, necklaces, skirts or jackets getting the short end of the stick? I wonder what the living conditions are for the ethnic minority Hmong women and young girls who make these beautiful items. I wonder if somehow these Southeast Asian Hmong women can cut out the middlemen and sell their items online themselves. I’m not sure if they have access to electricity or running water, not to mention own a computer. I don’t know what jobs are available to the self-subsisting and often poor ethnic Hmong of these developing countries. I’d like to find out.
Photo above by Brian Snelson
The cloth looks closely familiar even though I only see it from my laptop screen. I know how many hours it takes to make just one cross-stitch pattern for a sleeve. It’s countless hours for a skirt or jacket. I imagine my hands holding the needle and painstakingly stitching the pattern together, picking out the colorful thread one by one that has already been neatly organized next to me. I cry a little inside imagining how proud the Hmong woman or girl would have felt of this piece and to see it being sold for such a high price, how many days would this item have fed their family?
I set out on the world wide web to investigate. Tales of travelers trekking through Vietnam tell of the Hmong women selling their flower cloth. These travelers’ blog posts are a limited point of view. We can’t possibly tell how the women are living except by examining their health from appearances. Their bodies are elaborately layered and therefore don’t give much away.
I found some research by Associate Professor Sarah Turner about highland Hmong ethnic minority semi-subsistence farmers in North Vietnam. You can read more about it here: Associate Professor Sarah Turner’s Research. Professor Turner made me think. Maybe the Hmong in Southeast Asia are content in their way of life and the sales of their text tiles are priced appropriately to help them earn a decent living, to their knowledge of a standard of living. Who am I to impose my first world view of standards of living on them?
Outsourcing and the globalization make companies more profitable. They, in turn, can offer cheaper products to their end users. These Hmong women do not work in factories and there is nobody to oversee their labor conditions. Their products are not being mass marketed either but they are being put on display on the internet and being sold at a far more expensive price. You can argue that the traveler is simply offering a service and supplying the goods demanded by consumers who cannot travel to South East Asia. You can also argue that the profit they make are to cover the costs of travel and shipping. At what price is it fair to resell these textiles on the internet?
Photo above by Brian Snelson
The world is not fair but there is a social responsibility we hold to each other. We cannot know the intentions of online boutique shops and travelers who seek out bargains and purchase ethnic text tiles aboard. Yes, they are beautiful and intricate pieces of fashion. I adore the many pieces I’ve seen on Etsy and Instragram. I wonder, who made this piece? Where is it from? You see, I could have been the young lady who made that ethnic text tile you just purchased. That could have been me.
Below are great reads and beautiful pictures of travel in Southeast Asia and of the Hmong:
Chiang Mai: Hmong Antique Textile Market
Ethnic Groups of Northern Thailand: The Hmong
Chiang Mai Shopping
Exploring Vietnam with Explore Indochina Motorcycle Tours
Vietnam: The Colorful Hilltribe Market of Bac Ha
Flower Hmong: A Colorful Trip to the Bac Ha Market