Keeping the fire of hand embroidery alive

HANOI (Viet Nam News/ANN) – Since Vietnam became a republic in 1945, many craft villages have moved away from their traditional sources of income. One start-up business is trying to update and maintain their 200-year-old craft of embroidery to meet comtempary needs.

In the two months leading up to Tet, the Lunar New Year, the fashion houses across the country launch their latest ao dai collections for the year.

Women of all ages busily prepare one of their most special costumes of the year, second only to the ones they wear for the wedding of a family member.

If the fashion world has two collections – one for Spring/Summer and one for Autumn/Winter – then many Vietnamese designers tend to have three each year: the same two collections, and one just for ao dai.

Ao dai can fit all women

Naturally dyed silk needs to be treated to keep the colour last longer. – ANN

People often think a delicate outfit like ao dai can be hard to wear, because you are supposed to show the body under a couple layers of thin silk or velvet. But actually, the free flow of the drapes make it fit any body type and the long sleeves and long trousers make it safe to wear if you don’t want to expose your skin.

Among all the ao dai, the most sophisticated ones are embroidered, with each image bearing a message or goal for the person wearing it.

When Vietnam was a kingdom, many villages survived by filling the wardrobes of the King, his wife and his contingent of concubines. Since Vietnam became a republic in 1945, these traditional villages switched to making ornate embroidered tablecloths, napkins, embroidered paintings and duvet covers, or kimonos, small gift boxes and bags.

Besides rice farming work, the livelihoods of these artisans depend on the export orders they receive.

“My parents only wanted me to go to school, go to college, get a job as an office worker and settle down,” said Bui Mai Lan, 35, founder of the Tu Thi Hand Embroidery company. “They did not want me to follow the traditional craft of our village because they both think it’s all hard work and low pay. All they wanted for me was to be a government employee to get a pension when I retire.”

Quat Dong, cradle of embroidery

Lan said she was lucky to have grown up in Quat Dong Village in a land of more than 200 craft villages in the Ha Tay region.

“Every family in my village used to have several frames for embroidery,” she said. “During summer when we went there from our Hanoi house, I saw my uncles and cousins embroidering all the time.”

It was as natural a part of life as breathing. Lan said she had a happy childhood playing in her country home and watching her family sewing. They would take a break to prepare a meal, then go back to work together again.

One day, hanging around the masters of the craft, the little girl received an offer, “Want to try it?” So she did. From early on, children learned to make simple stitches.

The first detail they were allowed to sew was the water in a larger dragon painting.

“I started out with water, then I did clouds,” she said. “Then I got to do each segment of the dragon’s long body. And the adults would meticulously sew the dragon scales. Sometimes, when they worked on a large painting, six or seven people would sit around a frame working at the same time to make a landscape painting or one that has dragons, kylins, turles and phoenixes, the ancient sacred symbols. The overall ambience was really busy and happy,” she said.

“During my childhood, I could see the better time of the village was around 2001 to 2005, when orders from Japan to make kimonos and orders to from South Korea to make tablecloths kept villagers busy.”