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May Thao - Kansas Folk Art

May Her Thao, and Shoua Xiong

Paj Ntaub

Dia Her, Phoua Her, Sae Her, Zang Her, Ah Vang, and Ying Vang, Apprentices

Kansas City, Kansas, has a population of about 600 Hmong refugees. The Hmong women are known for their extraordinary needlework skills. May Thao, May Her Thao, and Shoua Xiong are all masters at the art of paj ntaub (pronounced "pan dau"). All three women originally learned their needlework skills from their mothers while growing up in Laos.

In 1987 nine women from the Kansas City Hmong community participated in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. The idea of the apprenticeship was to free up the participants from the demands of the marketplace and allow them to create the type of needlework they personally desired. One of the goals of the apprenticeship was to renew the tradition of batik work. The women had stopped producing batik after moving to the United States, largely because the language barrier kept them from getting the materials that they needed. With the help of Jane Henry, who at the time was director of the Refugee Assistance Center, the women used the apprenticeship funds to obtain from new sources the materials they needed for batik work.

Although the apprenticeship focused on batik work, the women also worked in the areas of embroidery, cross-stitch, appliqué, and reverse appliqué. This is in keeping with the tradition since all Hmong textile art uses more than one technique. All nine of the women had first learned their traditional skills from their mothers long before immigrating to the United States. Although all of the women took turns sharing their knowledge with the others, three of the women served as master teachers. May Thao, May Her Thao, and Shoua Xiong are all accomplished at batik work and have many years of needlework experience among them. May Her Thao commented that before the apprenticeship she had all but forgotten her batiking skills because she had not been able to use them since leaving Laos. However, during the apprenticeship she produced a large quantity of batik work.

Although Hmong girls in Laos first began to learn the traditional needlework skills around the age of eight, this is not the case in Kansas City. Many of the young girls and young women of the Hmong community are too busy with other activities to learn the folk art. The apprenticeship encouraged younger women to further develop their skills. There is a strong desire among the women that the young women continue to learn traditional needlework. When asked, one of them said, "I want them to learn because this is their culture. It is important."

The apprenticeship clearly allowed the Hmong women to be free of the influence of the commercial market but this does not mean that the apprenticeship did not have an economic impact. All nine participants continue to sell paj ntaub to help supplement their families' incomes. However, the apprenticeship allowed them the chance to create more traditional pieces, which have since found a paying audience. The direct result of the apprenticeship is that all nine women are making more paj ntaub than in the past and have been freed from the previous constraints of uniform design.

From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989

Entry: Thao, May - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: May 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.