A WAY WITH WEAVING

The Lo Lo Hoa people in Vietnams north boast some of the most intricately-created clothing found in the country.

By Cac Truc on October 16,2017 11:12 AM

A WAY WITH WEAVING

photos: Ngoc painter

I've lived in Vietnam for more than 20 years and travelled to different regions multiple times, but have understood little about the treasures brought to the country by each of its 54 ethnic minority groups. The further I go, though, the more I realise how important it is to take it slowly for a more thorough comprehension. Like Giorgio Morandi - the fine arts old master - once said, ‘One can travel this world and see nothing. To achieve understanding it is necessary to not see many things but to look hard at what you do see.’ This time, as I returned to Meo Vac in northern Ha Giang province, I decided to experience a ‘dolce far niente’ (pleasant idleness) in a small village up on a hill.

This is where the Lo Lo people (divided into two groups - Lo Lo Hoa and Lo Lo Den) live and tend to their rice terraces, corn fields, and vegetable patches. Living in Lung Cu (Dong Van), Meo Vac, and other habitable mountainous fringes, the Lo Lo are followers of Animism, holding a belief that consciousness or spirit is a quality of life, that beings can communicate with other beings and bring about change, that humans can communicate with rivers, forests, the air, the soil, fire, and the spirits of the ancestors. From generation to generation, they have passed down folkloric stories, sharing tales from the past through dance, festivals and music from bronze drums. According to legend, the bronze drums saved a sister and brother of the Lo Lo during the genesis flood, when the waters almost touched the sky. The older sister hid in a big drum and the younger brother in a small drum. The drums floated on the water, helping them to survive and become the ancestors of the Lo Lo. Together with the sacred drum, the group’s vibrant and intricate hand-embroidered brocade is also one of the most sartorial accomplishments of these marvellous ‘sailors’ of Vietnam’s north.

A WAY WITH WEAVING

Among the many ethnic minority peoples, the Lo Lo Hoa probably create the most admired, complex and striking embroidered textiles. Like many in the north, they dye their clothes in two signature colours: indigo and black. But they put together their traditional costumes using various textile techniques and multiple intricate patterns. I sat on the ground with a grandmother in Meo Vac, who was sewing a kaleidoscopic cloth meticulously embellished with 4,000 to 5,000 rainbow-coloured triangles that make up large squares. One square usually consists of 12 triangles. Decorations are everywhere, around the sleeves, on the chest, behind the back, down the trouser leg. She did the whole piece without an embroidery frame, but seemed to know instinctively where to dab the needle and thread. Lo Lo Hoa women don’t wear the dress worn by Lo Lo Den women, instead preferring indigo trousers, with a skirt wrapped around the waist and a decorative sash or belt.

It can take at least a year and even two or three years of continuous hard work just to complete one traditional costume of trousers, skirt, sashes, jackets, and headscarves attached by small cotton pompoms and other silver accessories. Red goes first, then white, then pink. You may wonder why they work so hard work on their clothes, but Lo Lo Hoa women appreciate dressing. They dress for the ancestors, for the family, and for the people; not only for themselves. Therefore, within every pattern is a story. For instance, different head scarf (dau) arrangements have different meanings. Those with colourful beads and red tassels depict stars in the sky and the spirit that manages the universe (than Ket Do). Those with squares made from triangles (one in bright colours, one in dark colours) embody the circulation of space and time and the spirit that protects humans and other beings on earth. Lo Lo Hoa women create different decorations but all are from triangles - the symbol of their ancient kingdom. Back then, when their ancestors had to flee the kingdom, the chief gave his people 12 buckwheat seeds (tam giác mạch), and told them that wherever they found a safe place to settle down, to grow the wheat so their children would never forget their origins. This explains why the Lo Lo Hoa believe that where there is buckwheat there are the footsteps of their forebears.

A WAY WITH WEAVING

The weaving traditions and techniques have been passed down through generations of women in a family. In their culture, every girl learns how to weave, sew, embroider, tassel, batik (using beeswax) and quilt their own clothes by hand, starting from when they’re around five or six years old. A girl without these skills is a source of shame. It costs around VND5 million ($240) if you want to order a set of clothes for yourself. Beyond money, though, time and patience are also needed, as Lo Lo Hoa women don’t generally weave clothes for sale, only for their families (except for those who are artisans). And they wear their elaborate and decorative clothes only during special occasions or at festivals. If you choose to travel the hundreds of kilometres to experience their culture and admire their clothing, it’s best not to do it during the full moon, as it’s believed that wearing traditional costumes at this time brings bad luck.

If you find yourself visiting a Lo Lo Hoa village during the harvest, be sure to check out their beautiful clothing of geometric patterns, sit down for a bowl of corn wine, and listen to their old folk stories.

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