Zu Xiong, Hmong batik master

8 August 2013

In Luang Prabang, I have spent the day with Zu Xiong, a true expert in the batik technique, who teaches her craft and practices at the Ock Pop Tok workshops.

Coming from a village located 50 kilometers away from the Cultural Heritage city, Zu Xiong belongs to the Hmong community. She grew up in the countryside and was introduced to this traditional textile skills at twelve. With her beautiful traditional costume : round and graphic cap, embroidered indigo jacket, appliqué ribbons on the collar and armholes, bright pink silky belt with sinuous patterns, this little lady wears with such dignity the signs of her ethnic group.

Sitting quietly at a table, she gave me a demonstration of drawing using the batik technique. On a natural and rustic hemp roll, Zu Xiong patiently draws with a bamboo and metal stylus and black ink, a mixture of beeswax and indigo. She gradually covers the entire surface of the fabric, symmetrically, starting from the edges. These motifs give the fabric its structure and boldness. At 59, Zu Xiong knows her repertoire by heart. Her stylized drawings depict animals such as a snail, plants and leaves, cucumber or squash seeds… The everyday Hmong rural world symbolized in a few lines. The wax will be embedded in the fibers of the fabric to repell the dyeing.

It is only the first step in achieving a batik. This is a long process which Zu Xiong is detailing to me. To prepare the pigment that gives color to the hemp fabric, you must put indigo leaves in a jar for four days. The leaves are then removed and you only keep pigments to ferment for an additional seven days, in order to cold soak the patterned fabric and dry it under the sun. To obtain this color from intense blue to deep black, you need to repeat the dipping and dyeing process three to four times a day minimum, and ideally up to forty times a month.

Finally, the fabric is boiled to melt the wax. The drawings then appear in white. Batik is finished. This piece is the basis of all Hmong women textile designs. They embroider red appliqué ribbons or geometric points, assemble several pieces of fabrics to create curtains or large pleated skirts, just like the one worn gracefully by Zu Xiong the day we met.

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