Passing glory

Quat Dong village was famed for its embroidery for hundreds of years but days of prosperity are slipping away.

By Jessica Nguyen on April 15,2019 10:03 AM

Passing glory


"The eye is the most-valued possession of hand-embroidery craftsman. Only by eye can they place each needle accurately and coordinate the colors correctly,” said craftsman Bui Le Thuan, 53, from Quat Dong traditional embroidery village in Hanoi’s Thuong Tin district, when talking about the quintessential traditional craft.

Middle-aged Thuan and his rough but skillful hands smoothly threaded the slender lines on the white cloth stretched on a wooden frame, and soon after a reddish-pink carnation began to take shape. “I’ve been working as an embroiderer for 40 years and will do so until my eyes fail me,” he said. Thuan’s working day may last 10 or 12 hours and bring him an income of around VND12 million ($550) a month.

Others embroiders in his village, however, can’t earn as much as he does. In addition to undertaking the most difficult and sophisticated steps on a piece, Thuan is also an embroidery master who takes on the task of sketching embroidery patterns. Sometimes, on weekends, he conducts embroidery workshops called Tu Thi in Hang Thung Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Each piece of Quat Dong embroidery is not made from beginning to end by a single worker and is a collective effort. While less-experienced young craftsmen undertake the background on a piece, masters complete the specific details to bring “soul” to the embroidery. And so, the income of an embroiderer depends on the stages undertaken.

Hand-embroidery has been a major occupation in Quat Dong village for hundreds of years, just after farming, and provides jobs for many local workers. Incomes from embroidery account for 50 per cent of the total average income in the village.

People in Quat Dong love the traditional job handed down by their great-grandfathers. They do it at all times, during breaks or at leisure time after the harvest. Many families have done it for several generations. From a very young age, children in the village are given rounded embroidery frames, needles, cotton, and colored thread by their parents - the very first stage of a future career.

Embroidery is primarily maintained by households or workshops in the village. A large workshop usually has some 200 embroiderers while smaller ones have about 15 to 30. Each of these households or workshops focus on a certain type of embroidered product they specialize in. For example, there is a workshop specializing in embroidered paintings, another does embroidery on handkerchiefs, napkins, and tablecloths, and another specializes in hand-embroidery on “ao dai” (the traditional Vietnamese dress). There are also households who only do decorative details on embroidery products, such as sewing beads or attaching appliqué.

Every household works on orders with available or self-composed designs. Every two days, embroidery dealers come to collect the products and then sell them on later. Quat Dong embroidery is sold at an affordable VND150,000 (for small products of 30 x 45 cm) to VND 2 million (for large products of 70 x 90 cm), and have won favor among tourists. These skillfully-crafted products are now available in more than 20 countries around the world, in particular Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the UK, France, and the US.

Ups and downs of history

Traditional Vietnamese embroidery is available all around the country but only at Quat Dong village can craftsmen achieve sophisticated and skillful techniques. According to Thuan, it is possible the village bore the first ancestor in the field - feudatory doctor Le Cong Hanh.

The history of embroidery in Vietnam dates back to the 17th century when Dr. Le Cong Hanh (real name Bui Cong Hanh) who was born and raised in Quat Dong village.

Legend has it that, on a business trip to China, he was imprisoned in a tent and had to search for food by himself. He began to teach himself embroidery techniques by studying a parasol, which was embroidered by local people.

Upon returning home, he brought Chinese embroidery techniques with him and taught Quat Dong’s villagers and others from neighboring villages such as Tam Xa, Vu Lang, Huong Duong, and Huong Giai. Every year, villagers from these five villages still commemorate Le Cong Hanh’s death anniversary on the 12th day of the sixth lunar month.

Quat Dong embroiderers also went to neighboring cities and provinces, including Thang Long (now Hanoi), to build their careers, and embroidery businesses were set up in the 18th and 19th centuries in the capital.

Initially, Quat Dong villagers gathered together in Tu Thap village, at one end of what today is Hang Trong Street, to make and sell embroidery products. After many years selling their products, this part of the street became known as Hang Theu, or Embroidery Street. They even built a temple called Tu Thi on Yen Thai Street to commemorate the first embroidery workers who brought this traditional craft to the capital.

Passing glory

Hang Theu at that time was only about 40 meters long but was bustling and prosperous, just like the other famous trade streets of Hang Bac, Hang Ngang, and Hang Dao. Embroidered goods were sold not only to mandarins and dignitaries but also worn as costumes at traditional rituals or for worshiping in temples or pagodas.

“The most prosperous time for embroidery in Quat Dong village was in the 1990s,” as far as Thuan remembers. “Large embroidery cooperatives with 500 embroiderers worked all day and night to fill major orders for export to Eastern European countries. At that time, almost all village households were involved in some way.”

The glory days of hand-embroidery, however, passed soon after and the village was in crisis just a decade later. “This was when embroidery machines appeared and orders from Eastern Europe became sparse,” according to Thuan.

In the 2000s, embroidery patterns made from machines in various designs and with richer colors appeared and gradually replaced the more expensive manually-embroidered patterns on craft products. Handbags and handkerchiefs, with cheap machine-embroidery, have become a “rival” of the traditional art, affecting the livelihoods of many embroidery workers. “Young, healthy people left the village to earn a living,” Thuan recalls. “They let sick people, elderly women, and children stay at home to maintain the traditional job.”

Every two days, embroidery dealers come to collect the products and then sell them on later.

Every two days, embroidery dealers come to collect the products and then sell them on later.

The crisis had not passed when another one hit. Cross-stitched embroidery products have been imported from abroad since 2006, based on instructions or printed color boxes, affecting hand embroidery even more.

Sometimes, Thuan was forced to earn a living repairing electronics. Many embroidery artists similar in age to Thuan became workers at newly-established industrial zones. Very few returned.

“In the glory days of Quat Dong village, every household earned a living from craftmanship,” he said. “Few have continued the craft.” He estimates that only one-third of current households, among 600, are still doing the traditional job.

At the age of 53, he is considered one of the last of the talented embroidery craftsmen still attached to the profession. None of his two children followed in his footsteps. And so, the story of Quat Dong embroidery village may perhaps be rarely told in the future.

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