Leaves, Bees and Hemp: Traditional Hill Tribe Textiles with the Black Hmong in Sapa

black hmong village sapa vietnam

Black Hmong Village, Sapa, Lao Cai, Vietnam

Sa Pa in the North West province of Lao Cai is one of the most un-missable destinations on the Vietnamese map. Boasting a spectacular picture perfect mountainous terrain and home to some of Vietnams 53 living ethnic minority groups, it’s hardly difficult to see why I have been there 3 times already. In January 2014 I took a day trip from Sapa city to visit a secluded Black Hmong village where there was an 90 year old lady and her family still handcrafting traditional costumes. Made almost entirely from the natural landscape they live amongst, here I was able to participate in workshops learning about traditional bees wax batik, natural dying from the indigo plant and how to cultivate hemp fibre for fashion. Reading time 10 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa.

So I’m in a weird juxtaposition between trying to keep as still as possible, and wanting to ricochet off the minibus interior. I’ve spent over an hour swaying from left and right, bouncing up and down, and jolting back forth, whilst forcing down half a bag of  crystallised ginger for breakfast.  OMG. Kill me now. “Are we there yet?” We arrive in just enough time to keep my dignity and put my stomach back in it’s rightful place. Our guide greets us and we commence on the walk to the destined village  which is only a 1 hour hike away.

Along my pilgrimage to the epicenter of natural fashion, we encountered many of the regional wildlife and domestic livestock living remotely in the area. Luminous green ducks, muddy buffalo, horny potbelly piglets (yep), chickens, butterflies and little birdies, all had free to range to roam around their landscape. Local villagers were living out their daily routines, working in the rice fields, collecting fire wood and cooking. Children could be seen playing in the streams, climbing rocks and trees, and curiously peering at me out of wonder. There was a small celebratory gathering hosted by a local charity who were distributing much needed resources such as stationary and toys for the children traveling to a school nearby.  Sapa is famous for it’s landscape and although I didn’t take many photos on this particular trip, it is near impossible for me not to mention the monumental views of the jungle covered mountains that surrounded our path. Touching the heavens and topped with ethereal white cloud it was impossible to gage their true scale, giving them the impression of an infinite reach.

Hmong Homes
As we drew closer to the village, tale telling signs of textile production reveal themselves embellishing the vicinity. Freshly dyed indigo fabrics drip dry on a bamboo washing line. By use of a foot peddled sewing machine or practicing their hand embroidery skills, creative young women can be seen sat outside their homes constructing the very garments that form the fashionable part of their cultural identity. The village it’s self is a makeshift yet firmly established combination of homes, huts and out houses, made from a collaboration of wood, stone, bamboo, corrugated steel sheets and concrete.

Our guide is greeted and we are directed towards the main house to meet our host. We entered a dark, dry and smoky room, lit only by the natural light shining in through the cracks in the wooden walls and the fire burning in the middle of the floor. Slightly suffocating from the lack of ventilation I sit down next to possibly the oldest women I will ever see alive. At 90 years old, she had lived in the mountains and possibly that village all of her life. She was about 4ft tall, had kind face behind all the wrinkles, and her hands were permanently stained blue/grey from the indigo dye she uses to make traditional Black Hmong clothes.

Natural Fashion
Traditionally due to natural cycles and the time constraints of producing garments for an entire family, Hmong people receive 1 new full set of clothes per year. This happens just before TET holiday (Lunar New Year) when it is considered bad luck to enter the New Year with anything old, broken or damaged.

Hemp or Lanh as it is known in Vietnamese is harvested 2 or 3 times a year and laid out to dry in the sun for at least 1 week. After the individual long reeds are bent back and forth in the middle. This loosens the outer husk so it can be removed into long fine strips. These strips are tied together and wrapped into a hank or skein of yarn. You can see many Hmong women carry a skein around with them everyday, it is normally attached to there apron allowing them to rub it between their hands over time until it gets softer. This process is generally practiced all year round to cultivate enough useable yarn to clothe a whole family.

Hemp is a very tough fibre, traditionally used to make ropes for ships. Softening by hand alone will not be enough to make comfortable clothes which one would wear everyday. The yarn needs to be flattened further under the weight of a seesaw style millstone (watch our Haute Culture travel diary in Ha Giang to see this skill in practice). The technique basically consists of a woman (with excellent core strength) surfing a stone tablet back and forth over the yarn. Once this process is complete and the yarn is smooth and shiney it can woven into fabric on hand looms.

The indigo plant (Cham) only grows 2 months of the year in the Lao Cai province and is harvested from May to July. It takes 3 big baskets of indigo leaves to dye one outfit. The indigo leaves are then mixed with limestone and water in huge vats before being left to brew from 4-7 days.

The hemp cloth is washed numerous times before the skilled and intricate patterns are batiked onto it. Using hot melted bees wax and a homemade tjanting the Black Hmong have around 20 different designs inspired by nature and rural family life. Applied directly onto the natural cloth, the wax is acts as a dye repellent seeping through the fibres it comes into contact with, thus helping that part to retain its original natural colour during the dyeing process.

Endangered Legacy
Unfortunately due to the ever-expanding nature of tourism, commerce and industrialisation this Black Hmong art form is an endangered legacy. As I watch the 90 year old women skilfully and with much consideration illustrate her design (a 35cm square takes her about 3hrs) I ask our guide to find out how many other people in the village can do this much revered technique. The old lady begins to cry. Nice one Donna! She explains how she is the last living member of her family to still practice the traditional textile technique, this is  because the rest of her family think it is to difficult and time consuming to learn. All I can think of is how I’ve made this reaaalllyy old lady cry, and at a moment notice she could drop dead taking a entire villages kudos with her.

After batiking, the fabric is placed into the vats of indigo dye and left for 6 days. The fabric is dried and then the dyeing cycle is repeated  3 more times. The batik wax is removed and the garments are constructed incorporating equally intricate and vivid embroidery designs.

Step by Step
Apparently there are 41 steps to producing Hmong Fashion, here are my most memorable top 18.

  1. Grow hemp
  2. Harvest hemp
  3. Dry hemp
  4. Strip hemp
  5. Tie strips together
  6. Rub repeatedly
  7. Rock back and forth on a millstone to make shiny
  8. Weave Fabric
  9. Wash
  10. Pick Indigo leaves
  11. Brew Indigo Dye
  12. Batik fabric
  13. Dye Batiked fabric in indigo
  14. Dry, Repeat dying 3 more times
  15. Wash
  16. Construct garments
  17. Add embroidery and trimmings
  18. Wear

As I return to my hotel, I think about that woman crying and wonder, why don’t they care? How can they ignore her wishes? What will they do when she’s gone? What can I do? Like I’m some kind of textiles messiah here to enforce my wisdom. But unfortunately I don’t know what to do, apart from share my story and keep going back to show my support for the traditional culture of the technique. Not everyone loves fashion and textiles as much as me, and we cant expect every generation to live a life adhering to tradition forever. All I can hope is that one day someone in that secluded little village  picks up the tjanting, and inspired by their great grandmother’s creations discovers the passion for themselves.

How to get there
1. There is no train station in Sapa,  I have only ever taken the overnight sleeper train which departs from Hanoi train station at 8:30pm and arrives in Lao Cai City at 5am in the morning. Tickets cost around $50 one way , tickets must be booked in advance the train is always sold out.  You can purchase tickets  from the station or a local travel agent in the old quarter. There is normally around 50 touts waiting for your at the Lao Cai exit trying to sell bus tickets to Sapa for around 50.000 – 100.000 vnd. From my experience if you include waiting time and drops offs this will add another 2 hours  hours onto your journey.

2. As of August 2014 a new super speedy highway has opened up a direct route from Hanoi to Sapa. Apparently this only takes 4 hours by car and 6 hours by coach. Sapa Express offers this for service for a mear $17.50. I haven’t taken this journey yet but will do in April 2015 when I visit Bac Ha.

Hmong Village
This was a private excursion organised by London College for Design and Fashion Studies, where I teach. I will find out contact details and update this section asap .

Useful references
Fair Trade Indigo Dye at Indigo Cat Keokjay
Sapa’s Authentic Hill Tribe Culture Remote Lands
Hmong People of North Vietnam Scribol
Black Hmong Costume  Ta Phin Sapa    


5 thoughts on “Leaves, Bees and Hemp: Traditional Hill Tribe Textiles with the Black Hmong in Sapa

  1. Cory Joyce says:

    Dear Donna, I am a fashion design and patternmaking student in the last year and want to incorporate ethnical and sustainable fabrics in my graduation collection. I am going to Vietnam this summer to source fabrics and came across your post, which is AMAZING information. I wondered whether you’d be happy to give me any tips where best to go to find this wonderful art? Thanks so much in advance!!


    • Donna Wanderlust says:

      thanks for getting in touch cory, your best bet is to go though the blog and read the articles, everything you need to know is in there and if you have any more questions about some place specific then please ask 🙂


  2. Sue says:

    Thank you for your wonderful article. I visited Sapa and purchased 7 metres of handwoven fabric. I chose to purchase the plain fabric before it had been dyed. Your photos reminded me of the amazing people I met, including an old lady spinning the thread. I am currently sewing the fabric into a top to wear. Kind regards


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