The making of H’mong batik

Up in the misty mountains of the Lao Cai district in northern Vietnam, H’mong women in the Sapa area have perfected a technique for making deep, rich, blue hemp textiles decorated with intricate designs. These fabrics have been produced for generations and the first time you see them, they are fascinating for their unusual dimensions, color and tiny repeating geometric patterns.

These narrow lengths of material are handcrafted by women and girls to turn into panels for their pleated skirts. Traditionally, depending on their means, a mother would give her daughter one or more skirts as a wedding gift. One of these skirts would even be kept and worn at the girl’s funeral. Some H’mong wear their skirts every day and some, like the Black H’mong, save them for ceremonies and feasts.

It takes months to make one length of hemp batik. The price charged by local women doesn’t begin to reflect the hours of cultivation, weaving, printing and dyeing involved in making one skirt. First the women prepare the land to sow with hemp seeds and separate plots are sown with Indigo plants from which they extract the gorgeous blue dye. Six months later they harvest the hemp plants. It is the fibers of the bark on these long, straight stems that is stripped and spun into yarn for weaving. The H’mong women carry hanks of hemp which they strip and twist all day long.

As you trek through the beautiful villages of the Muong Hoa valley, you can see simple wooden looms through doorways or in some of the craft workshops. They weave the hemp yarn into narrow strips of honey beige fabric which is then washed many times to make it soft and then pressed to provide a smooth surface for ‘printing’ with beeswax.

In Loa Chai, there is a batik workshop in a traditional pole house where you can watch women applying the hot wax to ‘print’ designs onto the hemp. The motifs they use represent some of the elements of their lives. Stylized symbols of mountains, houses, family, fences, leaf fronds, seeds, snails and freshwater crabs make up most of their designs. A three to four meter length skirt of fabric represents weeks of work.

When the entire length has been decorated with wax, it is time to dye the cloth. The dye is prepared by soaking indigo stems and leaves in wooden vats of water. The sap leeches out of the plant turning the water deep turquoise and petrol blue. The liquid ferments and exposure to air turns it to the deep blue, once known as Blue Gold that was used as the original coloring for denim jeans. Each length of fabric is dipped, dyed and dried 15 times to achieve the deepest blues.

Finally, the fabric is boiled in water to remove the wax. The dye cannot penetrate wax so the resulting fabric is deep blue with white patterning. Some are trying to preserve this craft but I fear it may not survive more than another generation. It may, literally, be a dying art and craft.

Bridget March is a professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An. Currently she is the artist in residence at Sapa Rooms Hotel and Art Cafe in Sapa. Bridget is working on a project called Art for Community that will provide a sustainable income for the school in the poorest district in Sapa. She is also offering art classes and sketching tours in her Sapa studio until mid September. For more of Bridget’s work including news of her upcoming book visit bridgetmarch.co.uk