Ta Thi Tam, M.A.
Institute of Anthropology
Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences
The Muong is the fourth largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam with a population of over 1.2 million following the Viet (Kinh), Tay and Thai. Muong people live mostly in Hoa Binh and Phu Tho provinces in the North and Thanh Hoa province in Central Vietnam. Muong people also inhabit in parts of the northern provinces of Ha Tay (now belonging to Hanoi), Ninh Binh and Yen Bai. The group is considered having originated from the same stock with the Viet and sharing the same language of Viet-Muong.
Weaving is the traditional craft of the Muong. It is handed down from mother to daughter. Muong women will only be regarded as hardworking and skillful if they are good at cotton cultivation and weaving. That’s why Muong women teach their daughters how to grow and weave cotton at a very young age. Before a girl gets married, apart from weaving elegant skirts for herself, she has to make a mosquito net and some 10 wool blankets and 30 pillows for her future in-laws.
To make a plain weave or sophisticated-pattern cloth from a cotton seed, Muong women have to take various steps from cotton growing to spinning, sizing and weaving.
|Artisan Pham Thi Bao (right) in Ngoc Lac district, Thanh Hoa province, checks a brocade product__Photo: Khieu Tu/VNA
The Muong usually grow cotton in the first lunar month and it takes about five months to grow cotton plants from seeds. Before sowing, the Muong burn up the weed on their fields and carefully mix dried seeds with ash. They also choose a good day for holding a small ritual in which they prick some holes with a baked castor oil stick while saying prayers for a bumper crop. The stick is later brought home and plugged at the entrance of the house. To sow seeds, a Muong woman pricks holes with a sharp stick, followed by her oldest daughter who sows seeds and leaves the holes open. Two months after sowing, Muong people return to the fields to pull off all weeds and fertilize the soil with ash. Weeding must be done twice or thrice from germination to harvest so as to keep healthy plants to flower. The flowers’ petals fall off, leaving the ovaries on the plants to ripen and grow into cotton bolls. Once these bolls burst open, the cotton dries when exposed to the sun. Muong women usually pick cotton bolls in the late afternoon. After that, cotton bolls are dried out again in direct sunlight for three or four days and then kept in bamboo baskets.
Ginning, carding and rolling
The Muong have several tools for ginning cotton seeds and carding and rolling cotton fibers. In the ginning stage, Muong women use a small double-roller wooden gin to pinch cotton fibers from seeds. Powered by one-hand crank, the two rollers, which are about four centimeters in diameter and 20-30 centimeters long, are wedged together by the gin into a 50cm-high vertical frame and are counter rotated. As the rollers turn, they pull cotton fibers between them while pinching the seeds off the fiber tufts. The seeds cannot pass through the tightly wedged rotating rollers and so drop away as the fiber passes between the two rollers.
In the carding and rolling stage, Muong people put the raw ginned cotton, called lint, on a large bamboo-woven mat and use a small heavy wooden tool to flick the bowstring in order to tease the lint apart and make it into nice, fluffy clouds. Placed on smooth thin boards, the cotton clouds are separated into bits and rolled around smooth bamboo sticks to form cotton rolls. These are made nice and firm and tightly packed before the sticks are removed.
Spinning and sizing
To spin cotton fibers into yarn, Muong women use a wheel-driven wooden spindle. The spindle is fixed on a 15cm-high log at one side of a 1m-long base of a winding tool while the other side is a 60cm-diameter drive wheel hub fixed on two 60cm-long drive wheel supports.
To begin the spinning process, a Muong woman takes a small piece of lint and winds it tightly over the point of the spindle. The drive wheel is then turned with her right hand while the lint is spun and wound with her left hand by stretching out and pulling back the cotton roll. During this process, she has to maintain a steady speed to avoid twisting the yarn and move the yarn along the spindle so that the yarn winds onto the spindle evenly to prevent it from tangling. Sometimes she has to turn the drive wheel in the opposite direction to avoid uneven and tangled yarn and keep an even twist.
To make the cotton yarn strong, durable, shiny and abrasion resistant, the Muong dip spindles of yarn into a large boiling pot of non-glutinous rice soup and cook for two hours. Before drying, they wind strands into zigzag lines around a bamboo frame with a triangle-shaped base and three bamboo sticks, including a Y-shaped stick, pointing up from each point of the base. The yarn is then wound off the tool onto the shuttles and sized once more before being wound into 40cm-long bamboo sticks which are inserted into a two-tier rectangular wooden frame for drying.
Muong women use two types of looms to weave plain and patterned cloth. To make a patterned cloth, Muong women have to use a bigger loom as the number of heddles triple that of other looms. However, the process of weaving on these looms is basically the same.
To make a plain cloth, the warp threads are stretched parallel to the ground and one end of the threads is attached to a rectangular horizontal loom. The loom has two treadles in the pit at the feet of the weaver. The treadles are attached to harnesses which in turn have heddles, or healds, attached to them. The harnesses hang above the warp and the heddles are suspended from them. The heddles are loops of string which have a single thread from the warp running through them. When the weaver pushes down on a treadle, the harness with the attached heddles is raised while the other harness with the attached heddles is lowered to create the shed through which the weft yarn is passed in a wooden shuttle. In order to maintain the tightness of the weft, the weaver pulls the reed, which looks a bit like a comb and is positioned across the weft, perpendicular to the warp, and holds each thread of the warp apart, toward herself, which is known as battening.-