Take a short detour off the 4C towards Lung Tam Co-op, and whilst you are driving through lush green fields of flax you will begin to hear the clanking of looms. Here traditional H’Mong brocades are being woven.
Take the QL4c as you would normally to follow the loop. However, just after the sharp switch backs that take you down the valley side you will need take a small road to the right and continue further down to the Lo River and across.
You will be able to see the river and the bridge across it.
If you are in doubt you can ask for ‘Cho Lung Tam’ (Lung Tam Market) as the Co-Op is just closeby.
This is a centuries old tradition that no one knows the origin of. All that is known it that it is what H’mong women do. Perhaps not so much in Ha Giang but in Sa Pa the craft is ubiquitous. In Sapa, you will rarely see a H’mong woman without a needle and thread creating a patch of design and every household worth its salt, all over the northern region, will have a loom for weaving flax to make clothing. H’mong girls learn the craft from young, at first learning to tear, roll, dry and boil the flax. Then they learn to dye, weave and finally embroider. They are not considered fully grown until they have mastered all of the tasks.
Hop Tien Flax Weaving Co-Op
Back in 2001, Hop Tien Flax Weaving Co-Operative was formed, with only around 10 members. However, the story goes back just a little further that than. It was in 1998 that Vang Thi Mai and her husband, Sung Mi Qua, rallied around to collect funds to begin the flax weaving project. Then in 2000, Mai sought funding from a Vietnamese – Danish project that supported traditional craft villages.
The local people’s committee offered up 300m2 of land to hose the Co-Op and things really started to take off. It was then that overseas markets were sought and Lung Tam Brocade began to be exported to the United States, Japan and France. More workers were needed and this demand was easily filled by the locals. Membership to the Co-Op grew to over 100 and 120 looms were available for work.
The Co-Op provide work, income and support for the local community as well as preserving the traditional craft of brocade weaving. All of this is thanks to Mai and Sung and their seed of an idea all those years ago.
The craft was used to make clothing for family members in the past. Garments would take several months or years to make and were mainly practical (in the case of the boys) but also decorative (in the case of the girls). Nowadays, with the increased ease of manufacture and the overseas exports, more modern items such as: pillow-cases, cushion covers, hand bags, wallets, bookmarks and stuffed toys amongst other items.
Labour Intensive Work
There are more than 21 stages in the production of garment from linen. Very briefly, the process is something like this:
The flax plants are planted and tended and then harvested after two months. The flax threads are then split and boiled, then mixed with ash and beeswax. After all of this, they are woven into cloth and then dyed. Dying can take between 1 week to 2 months depending on the weather conditions, which will also determine the colour of the final product.
This short video gives you an idea of how much effort goes into production.
The Rise out of Poverty
In the past, the villagers in Lung Tam lived in very harsh conditions and extreme poverty. No matter what how hard they worked, they could never get ahead.
Over the 20 years of its existence the Co-Op has assisted them in earing an income which they can invest in more tools for farming, more livestock and education for the younger generation.
What started with Mai’s simple yet powerful question, ‘Why we can’t we weave our fabric to sell to others and better our lives?’, has become the driving force to pull the villagers out of poverty.
The village is now starting to reap the rewards of Mai’s effort and insight.
The Fight Against Modernity
In the 1990s, the craft was in decline. Young girls were not learning to weave, rather shunning the craft in favour of modern designed clothing from overseas. Then, as the Co-Op’s market began to grow and the girls’ mothers could earn good money weaving, the interest started to come back. Many women now state that they can earn more than 100usd per month, they can stay at home to do it and it means they can afford to send their children to school.
The Co-Op also provides training for women who have had troubled times. They may be the victims of abuse or trafficking and, as such, traumatized. However, it is not only the abused it may be the divorced, the orphaned or the old and frail the seek assistance. It can be very difficult for them to integrate into regular society through no fault of their own, due to the prejudices that run deep. The Co-Op provides a safe space for them feel at ease in as well as trains them in a skill that can provide income.
Poverty is a key factor fuelling the trafficking trade and abuse. Therefore, increasing a woman’s economic value with training can help to reduce this.
Mai’s vision is to protect the old custom of weaving and pass it on through the generations. This is becoming increasingly difficult as young girls are turning to homework, school friends or Facebook. They are more and more interested in the fashion from China and Korea and also don’t have the spare time to learn the labour intensive skills. Only time will tell, if Mai’s mission can succeed.