Embroidering with the Red Dao of SE Asia – Guest Blogger Penny Peters
The Red Dao people (pronounced dzao in Vietnam) live in the mountainous region of northern Vietnam near SaPa, and are a tribal subsidiary of the Miao of SW China. They reside side-by-side with the Black Hmong, and live in a subsistence rice & corn growing culture. I made contact with the Red Dao women on several occasions, and they are not shy! The Red Dao people totally pluck out their eyebrows and move their hairlines back on their heads the same way. There are several origin stories about this practice, and it continues to this day giving their faces a rather startling appearance. The most fun was walking with arm-in-arm with them to their village to learn how they embroider. As our group of 8 arrived at the meeting place, we were greeted with their rather serious faces pressing against the van windows. They each scanned us, and then decided based on their reading of us who would claim each of us to embroider and sell us her embroidered goods.
We commenced what turned out to be a rather more arduous task than we bargained for. As you can see from the photos these women do very fine embroidered patterns on their pants legs and jackets on dark indigo-dyed plain weave fabric. The patterns represent mountains, trees, people and rice. The fabric used for their clothing is quite finely woven. Surprisingly, all the embroidery is done from the back of the fabric by counting fabric threads to stitch over in the chosen pattern. For us they chose fabric that was more coarsely woven, obviously having prior experience with tourists unused to such fine work on very dark cloth. Still, it was darned hard to see the threads for counting! We and they had lots of laughs as we tried to communicate and stitch. They had no English words and we had no Kiem Mien. It was a chilly day with a stiff breeze. Eventually in frustration I decided to stabilize my small scrap of fabric by safety pinning one end to my own pants leg. That was greeted with gales of laughter. Later I noticed one of the Red Dao women had pinned her embroidery to her pants leg too! At the end of our embroidering session after we bought small pieces of their embroidery, they escorted us back to our van as the sun was setting. The walk was magical in the twilight.