Vang Thi Mai demonstrates her skill at weaving linen at a craft festival in Hue late April 2013. Photo by Tuyet Khoa
Vang Thi Mai lights up with pride when she talks about the linen and brocade women from her ethnic Hmong community make.
The short woman with a happy, round face is from Lung Tam Commune in Ha Giang Province in the northern mountains.
Her smiles and unmistakable passion for the craft effortlessly pull people into her stories.
"Hmong women have to work in the field all year round, but their hands are still very dexterous," she says.
"The cloth they make in 41 stages can be a painting of the mighty and beautiful northwestern mountains."
It is called "lanh," Vietnamese word for flax whose fiber it is made from.
Mai has made her community famous for the craft by making the weavers members of a textile workshop she set up 15 years ago, and promoting their products in markets like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as well as to Western and Japanese customers.
The project began more as a social than a business initiative.
As the head of the commune women's association, she said she wanted to improve the lot of local women by offering them freedom from their traditional roles as workers in the field and bearers of children.
She began to hire victims of human trafficking who came back but were shunned by the community.
Her remote, even forgotten, commune has always been a target for traffickers who would take away women in their teens and early twenties and sell them over the border in China just a few kilometers away.
Some women are rescued through cooperation between the two countries, but the social stigma is harder to eradicate.
With news often spreading that the victims had been made sex workers, and some of them returning pregnant, they are disowned even by their parents.
Mai has taken at least seven of them into her home, and gave them work at Hop Tien (join to move forward) Cooperative she founded with her husband 2001.
A quarter of the 100 experienced workers at the cooperative are former victims of human trafficking.
She received a certificate of merit from the Ministry of Public Security in 2009 for helping victims reintegrate into the community.
Many women at the factory, including the trafficking victims, did not know how to weave in the beginning and Mai taught them the steps - how to separate hemp stems into strands, spin the strands into thread, weave the thread into fabric, and dye the fabric for clothes and other items.
She says weaving linen has always been a village tradition, though only for old women who do it to make clothes for locals.
"It has now become a means for us to make a living.
"More and more people know about our village, including those far away in the west."
Many women now earn around VND2 million (almost US$100) a month, which is higher than the minimum wage in cities and four times the income earned by working in the fields.
The cooperative's income is distributed evenly among the weavers, and she keeps VND3,000, or less than 15 cents, from each item for a "rainy day" for the women.
Some men, whom she once had difficulty persuading to let their wives work for the cooperative, also began to help with hard tasks like lifting heavy weights.
Young girls are becoming interested in the craft as seeing how popular it is and the income it generates.
Long way to the market
Mai recalls how she was rebuffed when first reaching out to customers.
She went to various craft fairs in Hanoi in her Hmong dress with pieces of linen, but drew little interest.
She also went to souvenir shops and realized she did not have what they want.
"I decided that we needed a wide variety of products, and to focus on souvenirs like scarfs, purses, and bags, and the texture needed to be more sophisticated."
Sung Thi Mai, 21, who works at the cooperative, says Vang Thi Mai has classes for women of all ages, and those completing them successfully come and work in the factory.
"She makes the best linen in the commune. She is very skillful and designs many, many items and textures for us to make."
In 2006 the cooperative received support from a joint Vietnam-Switzerland government in the form of financial and market research assistance.
It made an international breakthrough in 2008 when Mai was invited to a craft fair in France.
She took her loom and performed all her best weaving techniques in front of foreign audiences.
Soon orders came from museums, embassies, and restaurants in Italy, France, Switzerland, and the United States.
In 2009 she cooperated with French vocational training organization Batik International to start advanced classes for her members.
Her efforts have won for her the title of "Active, Creative Woman" from the Vietnam Women's Union in 2010 and 2012.
In 2011 the cooperative's products won a gold cup at a craft fair in Malaysia.
This year they were exhibited at the annual craft festival held in the former Vietnamese capital Hue late April.
LINEN AND HMONG WOMEN
|Linen is a crucial item in the lives of the Hmong, who mostly live in the northern mountain province of Ha Giang, as it is needed for their wedding and funeral.
Girls have to learn how to make linen from flax they grows themselves if they want to get married. A bride needs to gift her mother-in-law a linen gown made by her when she enters her husband's house, and is gifted one by her mother when she leaves her home.
A dead woman is buried with a linen gown, and the cloth is used in most other major rituals too.
It takes 41 stages to make a piece of linen. Many of them involve turning hemp stems into fiber, which is boiled with ash and then with beeswax to become soft and white.
After weaving the fiber into cloth, the Hmong women paint designs on it using beeswax, and then soak the cloth in natural dyes made from plants. When the beeswax dissolves later, it leaves behind uncolored spaces, creating a pattern (of colored and uncolored spaces).
Vang Thi Mai, a linen artisan in the province's Lung Tam Commune, said linen is used by Hmong people everywhere, "but only those in Lung Tam have managed to make it famous."
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