Update, 10/16: This post is now live on Noonday’s blog, Flourish! I am honored to be a contributor this year. Click here to see all my writing on Flourish.
I often say that the beauty of Noonday’s products is on the surface as well as beneath it. Just like each of us, these treasures have outer beauty - clear in the designs that rival anything found in a trendy boutique - as well as inner beauty that comes from story, from culture, and from being made with love and with dignity.
Knowing the story enhances our appreciation of these pieces, which is refreshing as we push back against a culture that is all too materialistic. I know that the older I get, the more I want my possessions to be things that matter, that house connection, impact, and story beyond just looking nice as they adorn my body or my home. But in the case of artisan-made pieces like those from Noonday Collection, knowing the story is also something we owe the makers. Far beyond enriching our own experience, it honors them, reminding us to be grateful for what they share with us and humbled to now be a part of their story too.
The Journey of the Hmong Stocking
The Hmong Stocking is a perfect example of this. Women in remote Hmong villages in northern Vietnam create fabric for the purpose of clothing their families. When their garments are worn out, they barter (they live a communal lifestyle and have no currency in these villages) and pass their clothing along to groups such as Hien’s seamstresses. Hien is one of Noonday’s artisan partners. Her workshop near Hanoi houses mountains of fabric waiting to be recycled into bags, stuffed animals, and more. As I shared in my post about our Ambassador trip to Vietnam, Hien had to let go of half her staff when a large buyer pulled out - which means we have an opportunity this holiday season to send more orders her way and support the growth of her business!
Noonday has partnered with Hien to design this beautiful stocking. It comes in assorted fabrics, which adds a touch of whimsy and surprise. It’s a reminder of their handmade and recycled nature, and the journey the fabric took from the Vietnamese mountains to our mantels.
Hmong fabric: Global connections and cultural identity
Our trip to Vietnam did not include a visit to the remote villages where this fabric’s story begins; after all, we don’t partner directly with the Hmong women, but rather with the seamstresses who recycle their fabric. However, between talking with our partners in Vietnam, as well as my Hmong-American friends, the meaning of textiles in Hmong culture has captured me.
The history of the Hmong people was characterized by a nomadic lifestyle which has given way, in large part, to life as refugees or in isolated villages. They have historically been a marginalized minority group within China and then Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Laos. They are among the poorest in Vietnam, where there are 54 recognized ethnic groups but the vast majority of people are from the Kinh ethnic group; only about 1% of the population in Vietnam is Hmong, a similar percentage to my home state of Wisconsin, where many have resettled. Their support of the United States during the Vietnam war led to worsening oppression that drove many out of the country, or into isolation within it, in the years that followed. Yet, in spite of the Hmong people’s lack of a central government and their ongoing oppression from those in power, they maintain a strong ethnic identity even as they’ve been pushed out and scattered throughout Southeast Asia and then across the globe.
I see this in my friend Hnub (pronounced “new”), who left Laos as a baby when her family fled the Viet Cong to seek refuge in Thailand before settling in the US. Her pride in her ethnic identity has strengthened as she’s gotten older; in fact, she sits on the board of the Hmong Institute in Madison, to advocate for the flourishing of Hmong people in our community. I’m so grateful she helped me with this post, even inviting me over for a traditional meal to chat. As she fed me stir-fried chicken, a pork-broth soup, and loads of fresh bok choy from her garden, we discussed a crucial cultural marker for the Hmong people: their fabric, which is a tradition that persisted through her family’s displacement.
“In our culture, as young girls, we were taught how to stitch these fabrics. My mom taught me that if I wanted to have an outfit for the Hmong New Year, I had to make my own.” She described how she’d spend entire summers, starting at age seven, meticulously stitching her fabric.
The Hmong fabric in Noonday’s stocking was not hand-stitched, but created on a foot loom, and was more for everyday use than reserved for special occasions like the technique Hnub describes. But, the theme remains: these are textiles made with love, featuring patterns unique to the Hmong people and, at times, indicating their clan. And in both cases, we see the fabric being about family and relationship.
According to Noonday’s partners in Vietnam, an NGO offered the Hmong women a chance to commercialize their craft for a broader audience. They even offered wider looms to make this happen. After all, this is entirely appropriate in many instances of working to empower people through job creation: in the nearby village of Bat Trang, for instance, businesses whose workers have traditionally created ceramics for a living can benefit greatly from connections to new markets through fair trade. (Their inaugural piece for Noonday is the Llama Tray from our new winter line.) Noonday’s partner in Peru needed new leather stitching machinery and technical training to improve production and execute complicated designs, and Noonday invested over $8500 to make it happen through our Flourishing World Initiative. This investment made the incredible Mossflower Weekender Bag possible - and, in turn, more employment opportunities in vulnerable areas.
But unlike those examples, the Hmong women at their looms have never seen their weaving as work, as something to earn a living from. For them, it’s about providing clothing for their loved ones, tradition, family, and socializing as they sit in a circle. And so they declined the well-intentioned offer of the looms that would enable them to create fabric in larger quantities for sale; you see, that would require them to sit further apart, unable to socialize as well.
Hnub nodded as I shared all this with her. “This is the thing about Hmong people and their culture: their fabric is not meant to be commercialized. It’s meant to be a tradition that’s between a mother and a daughter, that’s passed from generation to generation to generation. A skill and a trade that’s taught as a relationship between the two...the intent of Hmong clothing is not to be capitalized, because clothing is so entrenched in our culture, our way of being, our identity of who we are...it’s our narrative, something we’ve given to our children, our legacy, our history, our identity.”
Instead, a more appealing business arrangement arose: selling used clothing. Once they are done with their garments, they barter, on their own terms, for things they find valuable, such as new sewing materials, produce they don’t grow locally, or useful kitchen tools. In so doing, they offer groups like Hien’s the opportunity to innovate and re-purpose their beautiful fabric. In so doing, they invite you and me to enjoy their work in new ways.
Only after their fabric has been handcrafted and worn with pride is it passed along for us to enjoy, knowing it first adorned a sister across the globe. As I shared with Hnub about this, she said, “that’s beautiful...that’s a different approach to capitalism.” What a great reminder of how important it is to listen well and not impose Western ideals of capitalism into well-intentioned efforts to empower. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to global empowerment; rather, the key is having a posture of listening and fully valuing others as partners, not projects.
A hello across the globe
Knowing the soul of this stunning, vibrant fabric is humbling. I don’t take it lightly that the women who created it at their foot looms invite me to enjoy their work and the rich tradition of their fabric. I don’t forget that the women who sewed it into its stocking form are able to live flourishing lives because of their jobs. And so it’s important that we credit those who created the stocking, just as it is important that it was created in a way that ensures their voices are fully valued and their pay is fair as they pass it along on its journey to you and me.
(Note - “Hmong” is pronounced using a silent H by all the Hmong people I know, although our partners in Vietnam tended to pronounce it with a hard “H.” When speaking of the ethnic group, I recommend keeping the H silent.)