Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America

The story of Hmong textile production in the diaspora reflects the radical upheaval in the external environment that Hmong refugees experienced. In traditional Hmong life in Asia, women produced complex clothing that established clan identity through abstract geometric designs in the textiles, created by embroidery, appliqué, reverse appliqué, and indigo batik (by the Green Hmong). The designs reflected a deep animist philosophy and were inspired by nature. They continue to influence the aesthetic choices of contemporary makers, even as those choices were mediated by refugee experience and economic concerns. Historically, textiles in village life were not sold but they held important spiritual protections, such as the colorful baby carriers and hats designed to disguise the children from evil forest spirits who might try to steal their soul. In refugee camps and later the diaspora, the sale of textiles generated important income for families, as it created conditions for innovation, such as the embroidered story cloth.

Although the sudden emergence of a pictorial or quasi-representational embroidered art from a geometric, very stylized ornamental art is highly unusual, it is another fascinating aspect of the textiles as cultural text. Escape narratives were the predominant theme of story cloths made in the camps, revealing a new Hmong concern with geo-political borders since crossing the swift Mekong River to safety in Thailand was the route for most Hmong who left Laos. Many Hmong drowned or were shot when attempting the crossing, and it became a central element in most early story cloths as did the incorporation of first Hmong and then English text. Yet, as the memory of the war receded and U.S. buyers required more sanguine subjects, many of the story cloth subjects morphed into representations of a new life in America—a Nativity scene—or nostalgia for the pastoral life left behind—animals in a jungle, scenes of village life, or illustrated Hmong folk tales with English text.

The works in this exhibition demonstrate a period in time when old paj ntaub influenced new designs, often produced at a larger scale or with more space devoted to the triangular borders, and embroidered story cloths changed to fit a new market that was different from tourists or relief workers in the camps. The works show how the profound relevance of textiles as infrastructure in the Hmong social fabric has never been part of a fixed cultural tableau, even as the narrative is adapted to fit new realities.

This exhibition was first curated in 1999 by Carl Magnuson, a cultural anthropologist, working with a Hmong refugee community. Curatorial updates have been done by Geraldine Craig, who has published more than a hundred essays on Hmong textiles and contemporary art, in venues such as the Hmong Studies Journal, The Journal of Modern Craft, Art in America, and Surface Design Journal. Craig is currently Department Head of Art at Kansas State University, and previously served for six years as Assistant Director for Academic Programs at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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Cloth as Community is touring June 2014 through May 2019. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact or (800) 473-3872 x208/209 for current availability.

  • June 16–August 11, 2014 J. Wayne Stark University Center Galleries, Texas A&M University
    College Station, TX
  • September 1, 2014–January 7, 2015 University Museum, New Mexico State University
    Las Cruces, NM
  • January 20–March 7 Southern Illinois University Museum
    Carbondale, IL
  • June 16–August 11, 2015 Falls City Library and Arts Center
    Falls City, NE
  • November 10, 2015–March 16, 2016 Bradbury Art Museum, Arkansas State University
    Jonesboro, AR
  • April 6–May 25, 2016 Roland Park Country School
    Baltimore, MD
  • June 16–August 11, 2016 Wildwood Park for the Arts
    Little Rock, AR
  • September 1–October 20, 2016 Studio 96/Community Center
    Sterling, KS
  • November 10, 2016–January 7, 2017 Refurbishment
    Kansas City, MO
  • January 28–March 16, 2017 Sioux City Public Museum
    Sioux City, IA
  • April 6–May 25, 2017 History Center of Olmsted County
    Rochester, MN
  • June 16–August 11, 2017
  • September 1, 2017–January 7, 2018 Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts
    Melbourne, FL
  • January 28–March 16, 2018
  • April 6–May 25, 2018
  • June 16–August 11, 2018
  • September 1–October 20, 2018
  • November 10–January 7, 2019
  • January 28–March 16, 2018
  • April 6–May 25, 2019 Fort Smith Museum of History
    Fort Smith, AR

Exhibition Details

28 textile objects

  • Content

    Fee Includes
    Press Kit
    Registrar’s Packet
    Programming Guide
    Gallery Guide
    Text Panels
    Narrative Labels
    Full Insurance
    Installation Instructions
    Custom-Designed and Built Crates

  • Curated By

    Geraldine Craig, Associate Professor/Department Head, Department of Art, Kansas State University Manhattan, KS and Carl Magnuson, Cultural Anthropologist

  • Organized By

    ExhibitsUSA, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO

  • Out-of-Region Rental Fee


  • In-Region Rental Fee

    $750 before 7/1/17 and $1050 after 7/1/17

  • Duration

    7-week display

  • Shipping

    Common Carrier

  • Running Feet


  • Square Feet


  • Security


  • Number of Crates/Total Weight

    1 crate/203 pounds

  • Insurance

    The exhibition is fully insured by ExhibitsUSA at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.