We're taking a little break from talking about rubber, but still in keeping with how things are made and stories while we're on the road - Sa Pa, Viet Nam.
We have visited a number of modern / automated fabric mills in Southeast Asia, still the patent lawyer in me sees that no matter the automation or the scale-up, making threads, spinning fibers (thread) to make yarn and weaving yarn at their core has been substantially unchanged. Over 20,000 years ago early made threads by twisting together plant fibers. Weaving dates back to Neolithic times (12,000 years ago) Weaving is is simply interlinking a set of vertical (warp) threads with a set of horizontal (weft) threads.
So, to my joy when we came upon Say (pictured here), a member of the Black Hmong in Hao Chai village that is tucked into the hillside where terraced rice paddies create the lush landscape of the Muong Hoa valley in the northwest region of Vietnam in Lao Cai province (close to border of Yunnan, China).
There are over 20 hillside tribes including the Hmong (Black, White, Green and Flower Hmong), Yao and Tai. Once nomadic but are settled in the Hoang Lien mountains like the clouds and the mist that hang over the mountain valley. The Hoang Lien mountains are the most southern reaches of the Himalayas. The Hmong are descended from the Chinese Miao ethnic minority group.
The Hmong have been using Cannabis, from which hemp derives, and weaving its fibers for over 5,000 years. Traditionally, if a Hmong woman could not spin and weave, the family would have no clothing. Although the availability of cotton and synthetic fabrics make clothing more affordable, modern Hmong women still spin and weave hemp fibers by hand. Say showed us how.
Making hemp fiber and yarn (see the accompany video)
The crop cycle for hemp is about 3-4 months. After the harvest, the leafy upper portions are removed, the stalks are bundled and dried before they are soaked in water so that the bark can be peeled away from the wood. The bark skin is softened with a stone mortar and split into thin strips or ribbons that are joined end to end by hand twisting (see image below).
Traditionally, the women do this while carrying about their errands with loads on their backs. In the image below, the woman in the middle is twisting hemp while she's walking. The twisted ribbons are moved to a spinning wheel and combined with other threads or fibers and spun into a (round) yarn. The yarn is then drawn onto a square-shaped straightening frame stretching it between the four ends of the frame. After it is stretched it is removed from the straightening frame, wound, and boiled in water with lime to lighten the yarn. Beeswax is also added to smooth the fibers.