Betty Marín
June 27, 2024

A couple dozen people, mostly women spanning multiple generations, filled the hall during a very rainy day in April at the Hmong Organizing for Progress and Empowerment (H.O.P.E.) Center in North Sacramento.

Lu Lee’s daughter Chue describes the traditional piece made by Lu’s sister so that they can find each other in the afterlife. Video: Betty Marín/ACTA, 2024.

As a part of the traditional art and community design studio Culture through Cloth, in partnership with Hmong Youth & Parents United (HYPU), a previous Living Cultures grantee, paj ntaub maker and educator Pachia Vang is working directly with elder artisan Lu Lee (“Auntie Lu”) to organize a series of paj ntaub or HMong (Hmong and Mong) embroidery workshops since January of this year.

Pachia met Auntie Lu, as she is affectionately known amongst her students, through her coordination of senior programming at the center and learned about her embroidery work. The workshops have been an opportunity to create a multigenerational space centering HMong knowledge, language, and artistry.

I had the privilege of observing and learning from various participants, many of them describing excitement about reconnecting with a traditional art form that they had first encountered as children, but had come to value more fully later in life. The workshop provided a warm welcoming space to learn or relearn the practice, be creative and connect personally. 

Students gather in a circle at the start of class to describe their progress and what they hope to learn. Photo: Betty Marín/ACTA, 2024.

Sue Cha described the pride of being able to create embroidery work with her own two hands, and through the process, gain a deeper appreciation of the care and intricate labor needed to create dresses used for different cultural purposes, including major life events like weddings, funerals, and other celebrations. 

A few men and boys were sprinkled into the space, accompanying their wives, partners and children. Chue Cha, Lu Lee’s daughter is deepening her paj ntaub practice from her mother and also taking the opportunity to share this tradition with her son. While the tradition is typically practiced by women, the workshops have provided an open space where boys and men can learn and observe as well.

She has experienced her mom come to life working with multiple generations including her own offspring.  Chue describes:

I get to see her in a new light, separate from being just my mom or my children’s grandma and it’s given her a renewed passion for her art.”

Lu Lee shared about learning the tradition from her sister, who has now passed. She cherishes the embroidered piece her sister created for her and is grateful to be passing on the tradition to others both inside and outside her family. 

Chue Cha shows her son a type of embroidery she is learning from her mother Lu Lee. Photo: Betty Marín/ACTA, 2024.

Pachia saw an opportunity to cherish and invest in elder artisans like Lu Lee, and is thrilled with the response and lively participation and commitment she has seen from many of the participants. Along with facilitating the workshops with Auntie Lu, she is learning and experimenting alongside other students.

The interest in our workshops has been really encouraging. It shows how important preserving paj ntaub traditions is to the community. I’m excited to continue providing a space for people to learn about HMong culture through cloth,” shared Pachia.

These workshops showed the power of dedicating space, time, and resources towards learning in a traditional way: in community by literally creating circles of sharing, listening, observing and practicing, centered around elder knowledge. The joy in the work was palpable through conversations, laughter, smiles, and mistakes. It was clear that through the practice, both new and more experienced makers were strengthening their ties to each other, their cultural identity, and thus the broader HMong community.

Pachia Vang in conversation with other students as they pass around an embroidery square, learning a particularly tricky embroidery technique. Photo: Betty Marín/ACTA.

Video: Sue Cha describes how the tradition is passed on and her excitement to create her own piece. Video: Betty Marín/ACTA, 2024.

Culture Through Cloth is a 2023 Living Culture grantee. The Living Cultures Grant Program is generously supported by the California Arts Council, a state agency, with additional support from William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

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