Pa. quilt makers get a hand from Hmong


Narathi Palua is sewing in the tropical sunshine. His long fingers deftly pull a silver needle through the heavy fabric. He is 13, gangly, all legs and arms and neck, but his feet - easily a size 10 - anchor his frame and portend a growth spurt.

He could be riding his bike through the overgrown paths of the surrounding jungle or collecting crabs in the cool waters of the Yom River. Instead, he is making an American quilt likely destined for Lancaster County, Pa.

In Narathi's village of Ban Pa Deang, quilts spill from the open doorways of homes, women drive by on motor scooters clutching rolled-up quilts wrapped in clear plastic, and porches have been converted to outdoor sewing rooms where scraps of fabric litter the tiled floors like a calico snowstorm.

Quilting brings prosperity, so everyone sews - gap-toothed grandmothers, smooth-faced boys, young mothers. From morning's first light until dusk, they sit cross-legged beneath rough-hewn quilting frames, stabbing stitches fine as rice. Others prefer to sew outdoors with the roosters, the smell of warm earth and an occasional breeze.

In this 1,200-year-old village, quilting is the economic engine. Teak homes have computers with Internet service, girls go to private school, and the Buddhist temple, surrounded by the shimmering gold tail of a forked-tongued dragon, glitters in a coat of red and green jewels. The temple is the most conspicuous symbol of the village's wealth.

Narathi will earn 40 baht, the equivalent of $1, for stitching the binding along the edges of an early American-style Rose of Sharon quilt that will easily sell for more than $600 in the United States. He has only been sewing for a month. He does it to help his mother.

They do not know that they are participants in the transformation of a quintessentially American industry. But they do know the man who brings the work to their village each month. He is not Thai, like them, but Hmong, a member of a once-fierce and primitive tribe from the hills of Laos that fought on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War.

He and his displaced countrymen in the United States are the key to a metamorphosis of the quilt trade that began more than 20 years ago.

And in the past five years, the Hmong have become entrepreneurial links between Third-World Thai villagers and post-modern Westerners with money to spend on a piece of an imagined past.

The Hmong's pivotal role in the business of handmade quilts began when a small group, about 30 families, arrived during the late 1970s in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, frightened and destitute. They had endured the misery of desolate refugee camps in Thailand after a harrowing flight from the Communist soldiers who overran their native land in the bloody aftermath of the Southeast Asian war.

Many Hmong came to the United States after the war, and this group was rescued by the Mennonites of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mennonites and Amish, the Plain People of Pennsylvania, are the monarchs of America quilt making.

These people of northern European origin had much in common with the Hmong, despite being from opposite sides of the world. Both cultures were agrarian, insular, deeply religious and bound by tradition. The new arrivals had one other thing in common with their hosts: the ability to ply a needle with grace, a skill the Amish and Mennonites admired and valued. The connection between these peoples would eventually push the cottage industry of quilt making into the global marketplace, an example of history's serendipity.

Eight million tourists from around the world visit Pennsylvania Dutch country each year, drawn by the dream of another age.

Here, amid verdant hills, the clip-clop of horse-drawn buggies and laundry fluttering on clotheslines, a living piece of America's rustic past survives among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. For more than 250 years, these Pennsylvania Germans have led cloistered lives in this region an hour west of Philadelphia, steadfastly resisting the jangle of modernity and preferring quiet simplicity.

One object exemplifies these people and their lifestyle more than any other: the hand-sewn quilt. They are piled thick for sale everywhere, in gas-lit farmhouses and in dozens of stores along the main thoroughfares and back roads that wend the fields of the Central Pennsylvania region.

The quaintly named patterns - Log Cabin, Country Love, Rose of Sharon - conjure images of bonneted women working side by side in the glow of candles.

Today, visitors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland come to Emma Witmer's cluttered Witmer Quilt Shop in New Holland with credit cards in hand, ready to spend hundreds of dollars for the one-of-a-kind creations piled 60 high on two beds in Witmer's shop.

Australians Jenny Bellemore and Marian McClusky traveled halfway across the world in search of something more authentic than the machine-made quilts available in Sydney. They found Witmer's shop on the Internet.

"We didn't want city; we wanted purity," Bellemore says, looking around at the stacks of quilts. "I think we found it."

McClusky peers in awe at the tiny stitches of a pink tulip petal splayed on a cream background. It is a superb example of applique - a method of sewing fancy cloth cutouts, like flowers, birds and hearts, to a larger piece of cloth.

"The hand-quilting and the applique are just incredible," she says, shaking her head.

The Hmong do the applique, Witmer tells them.

The women seem confused.

"They're hill people from Laos who fled to Thailand during the Vietnam War," Witmer says with the breezy authority of a teacher delivering a history lesson.

Witmer uses about 40 Hmong to applique, a skill embedded in their culture and practiced to relieve the tedium of Thai refugee camps.

Witmer is proud of her alliance with the Hmong and is quick to credit them for their exquisite work.

But most quilt shop owners do not mention their Southeast Asian workers. That would spoil the image of a Lancaster quilt as the product of strictly Amish or Mennonite hands. Quilt tags in pricey shops credit the work of Lancaster's Plain People but rarely the Hmong, who are referred to as "local Lancaster quilters" or not mentioned at all.

To keep the identities of these women from the eyes of tourists, some shop owners won't allow Hmong in their stores during business hours and make them use the back door when delivering piecework. One Amish shop owner once made a Hmong seamstress hide in the coal cellar. It is the dark side of the alliance that has existed for more than two decades.

In the 1970s, few Amish and Mennonite quilters knew how to applique. They didn't need to because there wasn't a demand for appliqued quilts. Then in 1983, quilt design was revolutionized and expanded with the creation of a pattern called Country Bride.

The technique that so entranced the buying public was applique.

Suddenly, the hunt was on for seamstresses skilled in the art of applique. The Hmong were there, ready with the skill and eager for the work.

"Amish people give me work," said seamstress Bee Kha. "They help me. They don't mind where we come from."

That was true, but it wasn't the whole truth. It was one thing to outsource work to a Hmong seamstress; it was quite another to give her credit. The tourist paying $700 for an "Amish" quilt did not want to see an Asian name on the tag.

Still, the Hmong in Lancaster felt an obligation to help their brethren elsewhere in the country. Starting in the 1980s, they drafted their far-flung clanswomen into the quilt industry, sending patterns and fabric, thread and directions to sisters, aunts and cousins in California, Minnesota and Ohio.

Life was good for the Hmong community. The Lancaster quilt industry was raging, and the shops could barely keep up with the demand.

But things were about to change.

In 1992, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was embroiled in a controversy over its decision to sell the rights to produce four antique quilt patterns to a firm that used Chinese labor to hand-stitch the designs.

The cheap knockoffs flooded stores and infuriated quilters who felt that the Smithsonian had belittled American history by authorizing foreign reproductions of the country's most cherished quilt patterns. In Lancaster, handmade applique quilts were selling for $600, but consumers anywhere in America could now buy a Chinese-made, king-size quilt for $149 at J.C. Penney or Sears.

After more than a year of public criticism, the Smithsonian halted overseas quilt production. But it was too late.

The patterns had been released, and people had grown accustomed to buying inexpensive quilts.

Those who kept sewing worked longer and harder for less money.

Seeking ways to make quilting lucrative again, the Hmong followed the lead of corporate America: turning east to find cheap labor. In Lancaster County, a handmade quilt can easily cost $400 to make, and the best can sell for thousands of dollars. In Thailand, a quilt can be crafted for $65 to $80. The Hmong in Pennsylvania who import these Thai-made creations don't make as much per piece as they would by doing the work themselves. But they can turn a tidy profit by importing dozens without ever having to turn a stitch.

Most of these quilts aren't the breathtaking masterpieces found in Lancaster County's better quilt shops. Some of the colors clash with American aesthetics, and the workmanship can be sloppy. But they're good enough to fool the unschooled eyes of tourists.

Now, these ersatz offerings are sold at Lancaster County quilt auctions, over the Internet and in some shops. Many shop owners have no idea this is happening. But in the past year, some have found out and are refusing to accept quilts from certain Hmong women.

Here is globalization at its best and worst. On one hand, it has elevated entire Thai villages out of Third World squalor. But it is also threatening an industry built on authenticity and homespun values.

"It's fraud," says Peter Seibert, president of the Heritage Center Museum in the city of Lancaster. "It's stuff being peddled as high-end art, and it's not. We see lots of tourists coming to Lancaster County who plunk down real money to buy an Amish quilt."

The Amish and Mennonites are as guilty as the Hmong, Seibert contends. For years, shop owners have hidden the participation of their Hmong piece workers, allowing tourists to believe that the quilts offered for sale in the shops are made exclusively by Pennsylvania Dutch hands.

One Thai couple, Saksit and Jongkonlak Jinapanya, ships about 200 quilts a month to Pennsylvania, says Saksit. He refuses to disclose the identity of the Hmong woman to whom the quilts are shipped, saying she asked him to keep her name a secret. Every few orders, he says, she changes her name and address. That is most likely because his Pennsylvania contact does not have an import license, required to bring anything into the United States for commercial sale.

Such secrecy is why no one knows for sure how many Thai-made quilts are being sold in Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Parrish writes for the Morning Call in Allentown, Penn.

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