Quilts That Communicate Politics and History: Hmong and South American Story Quilts

Hmong reverse applique, common in clothing.

Tomorrow is an election day here in the United States. Voting is one way that people can express their concern about the politics and cultural wellness of their own society. History shows us that political protest and celebration of victories have long been expressed through handicrafts. The hands of artisans have created portrayals of joy and suffering that we can learn from today.

Traditions of recording events or rituals through weaving, tapestry work, or quilting are found in cultures across the globe. There are many wonderful examples in museums: pre-Columbian Aztec work, Japanese Haori overcoats with family crests, medieval tapestries glorifying battles or fables, Tibetan banners and prayer flags, African storytelling shown in cloth, stories celebrating many different religions, and countless others.

Hmong Story Quilt. Click on any image to enlarge.

In the last few decades, two amazing examples of the cultural use of quilts to tell stories, and to express politic protest, have gained world-wide attention. The stream of immigrants from Southeast Asia has brought the wonderful handiwork of Hmong women to our attention, from traditional quilted and woven clothing to intriguing story cloth quilts. And in parts of South America, when political uprisings led to severe suffrage and censorship, groups of women created striking arpilleras to tell us about their anguish.

Hmong people have lived in China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and the surrounding regions for generations. There are several groups, each having their own unique style of handwork. Many clothing items feature intricate reverse appliqued quilt patterns, others use Hmong flower cloth embroideries.

Escaping across the Mekong River.

Fifty years ago, there was no written Hmong language. Storytelling preserved history and traditions, and these stories were supported by embroidered story cloths. Old story cloths show families in daily activities, such as working in rice paddies, hunting, or celebrating a wedding. More recent ones show armies, planes, and stories of war and immigrating. Their use of color and intricate stitching creates a striking medium for preserving history.

Peruvian Arpilleras showing protest over living conditions, circa 1980.

Less than thirty years ago, political unrest was rampant in Chile, Peru, and many other South American countries. Dictatorships left behind trails of violence, and despicable living situations. Total censorship was often imposed, but the traditional arts of weaving, embroidery, and applique were apparently not regarded as a method of communication. In Chile, the original arpilleras were often small dolls, stitched from rags, then sewn together. These evolved into story boards depicting daily life. Some showed the hope for a better life, without the hardships that had come under dictators.

This 1983 Chilean arpilleras asks where are they?

Many showed protests, asked where lost relatives were, or depicted the violence that was used to squash the people’s spirit. In Peru as well, these arpilleras helped women to build strong community ties and to envision a different life. Many of these creations were traded or smuggled out of the country, and helped to raise awareness of the need for change.

We may find it odd to see quilts portraying violence, weapons, or suffering. For the Hmong story cloths, perhaps it was the lack of written language that naturally opened the door for this way to share life’s daily realities. And maybe, for the Chilean and Peruvian women able to share their handiwork when all other forms of communication were being censored, the quilts became their voices.

Hmong story quilts sometimes portray scenes of war.

If you were to tell the story of your life, your family, or some event that impacted your world, and words were not allowed, would you stitch it for others to see? What legacy can we pass on today, beyond the comfort of a quilt? How could you use your hands and handicraft to communicate the emotions of your life?

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About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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10 Responses to Quilts That Communicate Politics and History: Hmong and South American Story Quilts

  1. Pingback: Quilts That Communicate Politics and History: Hmong and South …Quilt patterns | Quilt patterns

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  4. Donna says:

    You are so right, I have enjoyed seeing the Hmong story quilts, but the tanks, guns, and planes struck me as odd choices for wall hangings! They are wonderfully crafted, it is hard to remember that they are a history lesson, not just artistic.

    • Martin says:

      i read once that the Hmong had no written language before emigrating here, so the story quilts make a lot of sense for preserving history!

  5. AliExi says:

    Last year I saw a display of these, and also some interesting quilted wall hangings by women in Afghanistan. They were very moving, kind of raw to look at. So much emotion, thanks for reminding us about our International sisterhood!

    I am grateful that I can voice my opinions and be heard and not have to smuggle quilts around to have my feelings expressed!

  6. JennieO says:

    We really ARE spoiled, aren’t we!

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  9. Jill says:

    I have always admired Hmong handiwork. I appreciate knowing more of the meaning behind their beautiful work.

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