#tbt: When Stories Were Woven

Once upon a time, people crafted blankets and tapestries with the intention of telling a story. These woven works of art often depicted stories of war and civilizations in disruptive times. And they often were made by the very people whose lives were destroyed or deeply changed. The passion in these crafts reveal what once was and what had changed.

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This Hmong quilt depicts villagers in Laos uprooted by conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Photograph by Robert S. Oakes, National Geographic

But these story cloths are not centuries old. They were made in the 1970s by Hmong women who were displaced with their families and friends into refugee camps during the Vietnam War. The Hmong people are talented artisans who specialized in making textiles prior to the conflict in Vietnam.

During a time of great turmoil, Hmong artists turned their pain and suffering into beautiful works of art which they sold in order to make money for their families. The textiles were not only their way of telling the stories of their history and legends; the cloths also told the stories of their displacement and eventual resettlement, often in the United States. Read more about the story cloths here on National Geographic’s Education website.

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A quilt depicts the Hmong people’s flight from Asia during war. Photograph by Tia Lee, National Geographic

Taking it back even further, did you know that people have been making similar “story cloths” for centuries?

Storytelling tapestries have been mentioned in books and plays thousands of years old. One example of this is the tapestry described in Homer’s Iliad—the Trojan War Tapestry. It was woven by Helen of Troy, and it depicted the battles between the Trojans and the Greeks. Despite how we know her today (of Troy), Helen was from Sparta, a part of Greece. Many Greek women, like Helen, practiced the art of weaving, and the mention of this artistry in the Iliad captures a skill women honed that helped to tell stories that still teach us about the ancient world today.

Many famous tapestries chronicle stories of war and displacement. In the August 1966 issue of National Geographic Magazine, Kenneth M. Setton revealed the story behind the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England. Although the tapestry was made more than 900 years ago, is it much different than the story that’s being told on the Hmong story cloth?

What do you think? Are there conflicts in the world today that you have seen chronicled through craft? What did it look like?

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