Vietnamese hand embroidery techniques, hailed for its superiority across the world, have been part of the lives of women in Vietnam for centuries. Traditionally, the embroidery had been done by Vietnamese women, according to Confucianism that girls have to acquire four virtues: “industry, appearance, speech, behaviour.” As the ancestors often said: “Men read books and recite poems. Women have to do embroidery and sewing.”
In the past embroidery was therefore only used to decorate pagodas, temples, along with the clothes of the royal family, nobles and mandarins. The techniques were simple and only five colours of thread were used: red, yellow (golden), blue, green and mauve. Then, over time, embroidered items became seen as art objects and were marketed as such.
15th century, shops selling parasols and various embroidered items, mostly produced in Quất Động and in other villages of Hà Tây Province, were well-established in the neighbourhoods of Tăng Kiếm and Đường Nhân (where Chinese traders lived), in Thăng Long citadel (now better known as Hà Nội).
In the 19th century, embroidered articles were exported to China and became one of the merchandises marketed by the artisans of Quất Động and the 20 or so villages in the cluster. During imperial times, the village’s embroiderers mostly made religious items for pagodas such as banners, parasols, altar curtains and parallel sentences, later it can be found on ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional costume, or silk scarves. During the period of French colonisation, embroiderers worked on household linen for the French with very fine silk thread mixed with French threads. Sometimes, artisans were asked to embroider golden thread onto white cloth imported from France.
Even in wartime, Vietnamese women would sing peace as they sewed poetry and drawings that symbolize freedom on items such as handkerchiefs, fans, and baby garments. In other words, embroidery has existed as a means of expressing Vietnamese spirit in the difficult times ravaged by war and subordination under the colonial rule.
In India, wool is used for yarn whereas silk is preferred in China. Vietnam traditionally relied on cotton. Cotton yarn has a greater durability than wool and lacks luster than silk, which makes it easier to formulate natural colors. Vietnamese embroidery tends to use a single-colored thread for one whole pattern. If the work requires diverse colors, the crafter extracts pigments from natural sources such as indigo plants, India almond trees, locust trees, or various flowers, for dyeing.
The years 1975-1989 are considered to have been the golden age of embroidery in Quất Động: a co-operative was created in the village to export a multitude of very diverse items to Eastern Europe (handkerchiefs, towels, tablecloths, sheets, pictures depicting landscapes or animals). Embroidery classes were given to villagers by the best embroiderers and the craft spread to neighbouring villages within the context of the co-operatives. However, the modest skills acquired by many apprentice embroiderers trained up rapidly (three months of guidance are not enough to train a worker) resulted in a slump in quality. This market then collapsed with the dismantling of the Soviet bloc.
Quất Động had to diversify its production to articles such as flags (also made at previous times), modern clothes (embroidered jeans for girls are still very fashionable!), handkerchiefs, bags, soft cases for mobile phones, etc. All require the accomplishment of various stages: cutting, stitching and embroidering. This form of production must be regularly reorganised and new markets are sought (mostly in East Asian and Western European countries). Quất Động has a familial production process: all the members of the extended family are mobilised, from the oldest to the youngest. Children go to school in the morning and during the afternoon, they help their parents with embroidery at home. Youngsters often complete the easiest parts of pictures, namely backgrounds of a single colour, learning the trade as they go from their elders.
Embroidery is an activity practised in parallel with farming. However, by its very nature, farming has to come first: sowing before sewing, if you like. Therefore, should you wish to visit the embroiderers’ villages, don’t go during the rice harvest or the planting season that follows ( June and October): at these times, if people embroider, they only do it in the evening. Finally, embroiderers only work to fulfil orders, often from abroad, or placed by local textile entrepreneurs, such as those in Vạn Phúc. Artisans are much affected by the unpredictable weather of the economic climate and sometimes, for lack of orders, embroiderers are ‘unemployed’. So don’t imagine Quất Động and neighbouring villages are in a permanent state of feverish activity. Nevertheless, there are some great master craftsmen and women in these villages, who are capable of reproducing all sorts of models and who specialise in high-quality and sophisticated work, with orders from rich clients (mostly Japanese: kimonos to be decorated…). Embroidery is a fragile craft, with little chance of survival in the long term.