Pa. quilt makers get a hand from Hmong

April 30, 2006|By KATHLEEN PARRISH | KATHLEEN PARRISH,MORNING CALL

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.

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