The Hmong people lived in China until about 200 years ago. At that time, the Chinese tried to conquer the Hmong. To maintain their freedom, the Hmong fled to the mountains of Laos. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong helped the American side by rescuing American pilots, attacking enemy supply lines, and gathering valuable information. After the war, with their homes and villages destroyed, many Hmong fled to Thailand, where they were placed in refugee camps. Some Hmong, sponsored by church groups, came to the United States, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California.

Paj ntaub (pon dow) means flower cloth. It is the traditional needlework of the Hmong. Hmong women create beautiful designs by taking two layers of cloth, cutting a design in the top layer so that the bottom layer shows through (reverse applique), and embroidering the resulting design. Traditional designs are drawn from nature. Names of designs include "elephant foot", "snail", and "dragon tail". The embroidered and applique designs were added to jackets, collars, headdresses, and other clothing. Traditional paj ntaub patterns are never written down, but are learned from watching others.

Hmong girls are taught to sew at an early age, usually seven or eight, by their mothers and grandmothers. Skillful needlework is admired by all and can help raise the prospects of a future bride. Traditionally, women did all the sewing, but in recent years men in refugee camps have also begun to sew as a way to pass the time and earn extra money.


To create a paj ntaub, the sewer divides the cloth into four equal quadrants and a grid of equally spaced vertical and horizontal lines by making lines in the cloth with a needle. The completed paj ntaub contains vertical and horizontal line symmetry. Most designs also contain rotational symmetry.

Examples of Hmong Embroidery


Materials: Three squares of different colored construction paper, sized 8" x 8", 10" x 10", and 12" x 12" and one square of 6" x 6" tracing paper.

  1. Divide the tracing paper into four equal quadrants by folding the tracing paper vertically and horizontally. Choose one of the designs and trace this onto one quadrant of the tracing paper. Trace the same design onto the other three quadrants so that the design has vertical and horizontal line symmetry. Does your design have rotational symmetry? How can you tell? Which of the designs illustrated have rotational symmetry?

  2. Center the square of tracing paper on the 8" x 8" square and paste. How do you know your design is centered? Find the area of the border between the two squares and explain how you did this. Now center your design on the 10" x 10" square and paste. Repeat with the 12" x 12" square.

  3. Find the perimeter and area of the 6" x 6" and the 8" x 8" squares. Find the ratio of the sides of these two squares and compare to the ratio of the perimeters and areas of the two squares. What do you notice? What conclusions can you draw?


Dia's Story Cloth by Dia Cha recalls the history of the Hmong people and one particular family through their previous peaceful life in Laos, the Vietnam War, their stay in a refugee camp in Thailand, and finally, life in the United States. The book is beautifully illustrated and includes a great deal of useful, hard to find information about the Hmong.

The Whispering Cloth, by Peggy Deitz Shea tells the story of a child in a refugee camp learning to embroider a paj ntaub and longing to come to the United States.

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