Thursday, August 6, 2009

Clothing of Mien (1)

ClothingGroups of black-turbaned, red-ruffed women on low stools bending over their embroidery are sufficient to identify a village as being Mien. Needles fly while tongues keep pace with the village gossip as these highly-killed embroiderers produce ornate caps for their children and sumptuously-patterned pants for themselves. Surprisingly they work from the back of the cloth, and cannot 'see' the pattern until it is turned over.

The costume of a woman consists of loose-fitting pants, ankle-length tunic, sash, and turban, all garments are black or indigo, and are made of cotton homespun cloth, with the possible exception of the tunic, which may be of machine-made material.

Elderly Mien have childhood memories of their mothers weaving all the cloth needed for the family. They grew their own cotton, and spun it into thread either with hand spindles or spinning wheels. Eventually they turned to the use of cloth purchased from the Tai in Laos. Today most of the cloth used for Mien embroideries in Thailand comes from the Shan in Kengtung State, or Northern Thai weavers in Chiang Kham District. Many Mien women prefer to dye their own cloth, using either chemical dyes or their own home-processed indigo dye.

Every Mien woman devotes her finest skills to embroidering the two matching panels forming the main part of her pants. Five standard designs used at the bottom of the pant legs form the border. Four of those designs use the weaving stitch, and the fifth the horizontal/vertical stitch. The weaving stitch, so called because it consists of all vertical lines that resemble weaving, was originally the only type of embroidery used. The horizontal/vertical stitch, which follows the warp and weft of the cloth with a lacy effect, was introduced later, but is also an old technique. At one time only the borders of the pantlegs were embroidered.

Women found that cloth woven by the Tai was quite satisfactory and gradually discontinued weaving. Having more time, they added more and more rows of embroidery to their pants. To day the entire garment, except for the waistband and crotch, is covered with embroidery.
Diagonal cross-stitch embroidery has come into use during the past 40 to 50 years. There may still be a few elderly women who never learned the technique. We met one such old woman (now deceased) who had gone as a refugee with her family to the United States in 1979.

Apart from the five standard patterns, the embroidery on the pants is the expression of each individual. She may draw from a great repertoire of Mien designs, or she may innovate as she wishes. Many of the designs have been given names, but the same design may be given different names by different people. As far as can be ascertained, there is no mythical or religious significance to the patterns.

Formerly silk thread was used for embroidery floss, and many Mien produced their own. As they used natural dyes the number of colors was limited. Today Mien women in Thailand use pearl cotton crochet thread, embroidery floss, weaving thread with a sheen, or wool-like acrylic yarn. These market threads bring a wide range of bright colors to modern Mien embroidery.
Mien recently come from Laos, or who consider themselves to be 'Lao-Mien', use a great deal of pale blue in their embroidery. Those called the 'Chiang Kham-Mien', however, use red hues (magenta, and various shades of pink and golden orange) as the dominant colors. There is no prescribed number or set of colors, although some women favor using five.

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