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Stockings with Story: The Rich History of Hmong Fabric

Guest post by Noonday Ambassador Julie Godshall

I often say that the beauty of Noonday’s products lies on the surface as well as beneath it. Just like each of us, these treasures have outer beauty—clear in the designs that rival anything found in a trendy boutique—as well as inner beauty that comes from story, from culture, and from being made with love and with dignity.

A global mantel: Two assorted Hmong Stockings complement the Peruvian Pom Wreath and a few lamps I purchased in a downtown Hanoi lantern shop during our 2018 Ambassador trip to Vietnam.

Knowing the story enhances our appreciation for these pieces, which is refreshing as we push back against a culture that is all-too materialistic. I know that the older I get, the more I want my possessions to matter. I want them to be emblematic of connection, impact, and story as they adorn my body or my home. But in the case of artisan-made pieces like those from Noonday Collection, knowing the story is also something we owe the makers. Far beyond enriching our own experience, it honors them, reminding us to be grateful for what they create and humbled to be a part of their livelihood.

The Journey of the Hmong Stocking

The Hmong Stocking is a perfect example of this. Women in remote Hmong villages in northern Vietnam create fabric for the purpose of clothing their families. When their garments are worn out, they barter and pass their clothing along to craft groups such as Hien’s seamstresses. Hien is one of Noonday’s Artisan Partners. Her workshop near Hanoi houses loads of fabric waiting to be recycled into bags, stuffed animals, and more. As I shared in my post about our Ambassador trip to Vietnam, Hien had to let go of half her staff when a large buyer canceled their order. And that means we have an opportunity this holiday season to send more orders her way and support the growth of her business!

Hien’s workshop was full of Hmong skirts waiting to be repurposed, and shelves full of finished items that we could purchase—which we gladly did!

Noonday has partnered with Hien to design this beautiful stocking. It comes in assorted fabrics, which adds a touch of whimsy and surprise. It’s a reminder of their handmade and upcycled essence, and the journey the fabric took from the Vietnamese mountains to our mantels.

Hmong Fabric: Global Connections and Cultural Identity

Our trip to Vietnam did not include a visit to the remote villages where this fabric’s story begins. But between talking with our partners in Vietnam and my Hmong-American friends, the meaning of textiles in Hmong culture has captivated me.

Here I am admiring one of the vibrant assorted patterns of Hmong fabric. Also pictured: Velveteen Earrings, Turquoise; Parallel Ring; Ruffled Scarf.

The history of the Hmong people was characterized by a nomadic lifestyle.. Hmong people have historically been a marginalized group within the mainland of China and within Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Laos. They are among the most under-served people in Southeast Asia. And in Vietnam, with only about 1 percent of the population being Hmong, they are often a vastly overwhelmed minority. Political tensions during the Vietnam War led to worsening oppression of Hmong people that drove many out of the country or into isolation.

Still, amid all this ongoing adversity, Hmong people maintain a strong ethnic identity. Even as they’ve been forced into migration throughout Southeast Asia and across the globe, they cling proudly to who they are and where they’re from.

I see this in my friend Hnub (pronounced like “new”), who left Laos as a baby when her family fled the Việt Cộng to seek refuge in Thailand before settling in the U.S. Her pride in her ethnic identity has strengthened as she’s gotten older; in fact, she sits on the board of the Hmong Institute in Madison to advocate for the flourishing of Hmong people in our community. I’m so grateful she helped me with this post, even inviting me over for a traditional meal to chat. As she fed me stir-fried chicken, a pork-broth soup, and loads of fresh bok choy from her garden, we discussed a crucial cultural marker for the Hmong people: their fabric, which is a tradition that persisted through her family’s displacement.

Hnub shared:

“In our culture, as young girls, we were taught how to stitch these fabrics. My mom taught me that if I wanted to have an outfit for the Hmong New Year, I had to make my own.”

She described how she’d spend entire summers, starting at age seven, meticulously stitching her fabric. The Hmong fabric in Noonday’s stocking was not hand-stitched, but created on a foot loom. It was more an everyday staple than the more ceremonial fabrics that Hnub crafted. In both cases, though, these are textiles made with love, featuring patterns unique to the Hmong people. And we see fabric that tells true stories of heritage, family, and friendships.

Hnub (right) and her sisters wearing traditional clothing for the Hmong New Year. Hers features the hand-stitched fabric she’d created as a child, along with silver jewelry, saved for New Year celebrations.

During our visit to Vietnam, Noonday’s Artisan Partners shared with us that an NGO (non-governmental organization) offered the Hmong women a chance to commercialize their craft for a broader market. They even offered wider looms to make it a reality. Helping Artisan Businesses build capacity by investing in needed technology can be a valuable piece of development work.

For example, when Noonday’s Artisan Partners in Peru needed new leather-stitching machinery and technical training to improve production and execute complicated designs, Noonday invested over $8500 to make it happen through our Flourishing World Initiative. This investment made the incredible Mossflower Weekender Bag possible—and, in turn, more employment opportunities in vulnerable areas.

But unlike those examples, the Hmong women at their looms have never seen their weaving as work. For them, it’s about tradition, family, socializing, and providing clothing for their loved ones. They declined the well-intentioned offer of the larger looms that would enable them to create fabric in larger quantities; you see, that would require the women to sit further apart, unable to socialize and enjoy each other’s company in the same way.

Hien’s employee, Lien, sews a zippered pouch. This job has provided her with steady, dignified work for over eight years.

Hnub nodded as I shared all this with her. She told me:

“This is the thing about Hmong people and their culture: their fabric is not meant to be commercialized. It’s meant to be a tradition that’s between a mother and a daughter, that’s passed from generation to generation to generation. A skill and a trade that’s taught as a relationship between the two…the intent of Hmong clothing is not to be capitalized, because clothing is so entrenched in our culture, our way of being, our identity of who we are…it’s our narrative, something we’ve given to our children, our legacy, our history, our identity.”

Hnub’s daughter during Hmong New Year.

Instead of creating these textiles to sell, a more appealing business arrangement arose: selling used clothing. Once they are done with their garments, the women barter on their own terms for things they find valuable, such as new sewing materials, produce they don’t grow locally, or useful kitchen tools. That interconnected system offers groups like Hien’s the opportunity to innovate and repurpose their beautiful fabric.

Only after their fabric has been handcrafted and worn with pride is it passed along for us to enjoy, knowing it first adorned a sister across the globe. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to global empowerment; rather, the key is having a posture of listening and fully valuing others as partners, not projects.

During my visit with Hien (right). Mai (left) is from Au Lac Designs and translated for us.

A Hello from Across the Globe

Knowing the soul of this stunningly vibrant fabric is humbling. I don’t take it lightly that the women who created these textiles at their foot looms have chosen to share such a rich tradition with our communities here in the States. And I don’t forget that the women who sewed these stockings are able to live flourishing lives because of their jobs.

In the end, you could say the Hmong Stockings come pre-stuffed: full of beauty, full of opportunity, full of story. And—as you must have guessed by now—full to the brim with love. What a way to spread and share the joy of connection this winter season!

Meet Julie Godshall

Julie lives in Madison, WI with her husband and two young kids. She’s a math geek with self-proclaimed great taste in binge-watchable British dramas and probably wrote this post in a fair trade coffee shop. She’s a former direct sales failure turned Ambassador and is thrilled she said “yes” to Noonday. Julie loves fostering community around beauty, story, and living with kindness toward the planet and its people.