Hemp plays an essential part in each and every Hmong family. When the Hmong was born, they were wrapped in a hemp cloth. They wear clothes made of hemp during their whole life, and even until death, their bodies are wrapped in cloth of hemp. It is not only their very basic material, but also is a symbol of the Hmong for longevity, commitment and spirits.
The hemp plants are usually grown in terrace-fields or nearby valleys so that they can be taken care of without difficulty. The harvest season only takes place once a year. In the beginning of May, the Hmong begins to sow hemp seeds, then after about three months, the hemp plants will be harvested and dried out. The phase of drying and stripping the plants’ barks must be done before winter comes, because the dryness of this season can make the fibers become crispy, making it hard for the artisans to tie them together.
Joining or tying the fibers is the most time-consuming step; therefore, Hmong women attempt to get it done everywhere they could, even when they have chores to do. After finishing, hemp fibers will be soaked in water in order to be softened before the artisans put them on a tension frame to prevent the threads from getting tangled. The hemp threads normally have the color of light brown but before being woven into cloths, the threads need to be bleached naturally with boiling water and firewood ashes to have a brighter color.
Bleaching is the final step of preparation before the threads are hanged onto the weaving loom. The Hmong can only weave in their free time; consequently, a piece of cloth of 40 to 45 centimeters in width normally takes them three to four weeks to complete. Lastly, the cloth is boiled with diluted bee wax to make it become firmer. If the Hmong wants the cloths to look and feel smoother, they can go with one extra step, which is rolling on the cloths of hemp with a cylinder-shaped stone.
As mentioned above, the whole process, from planting hemp to the point when you can use a hemp cloth to make clothes, contains of many steps and takes a lot of time. On average, in one year, a Hmong household can only make 7 to 10 meters of hemp cloth. Due to the economic and social development in recent years, different types of modern fabrics have replaced traditional materials of many tribes. However, if you have the opportunity to visit any Hmong family, it is highly possible that you can still find hemp seeds and hemp fibers there, as the Hmong is one of the few ethnic minorities that is able to maintain and pass down their traditional handicrafts from generation to generation.