The Hmong are a minority ethnic group historically based in areas of present-day China, Vietnam, and Laos, with a tradition of fine needlework skills. Following the Vietnam War, the Lao government began persecuting the Hmong for their support of the United States during this conflict. While many ended up in Thai refugee camps, tens of thousands of Hmong refugees resettled in the United States. With little transferable work experience or education, many Hmong women began selling their traditional needlework, paj ntaub (pronounced “pa ndau” and translated as “flower cloth”). In southeastern Pennsylvania, as well as in some midwestern communities, Hmong women found work adapting their needlework tradition to the Amish quilt industry.
Demand for country style appliqué quilts was high among consumers, and not enough Amish seamstresses were skilled at the intricate hand stitching required. Luckily for Amish quilt businesses, the Hmong had the necessary sewing skills, experience selling their own textile arts, and knack for learning and adapting others’ cultural practices.
As Hmong women’s reputation for fine appliqué work spread among Lancaster County quilt shops, these seamstresses found more and more work available to them as part of the complex putting-out system, crafting thousands of quilts for the consumer market. By one estimate, Hmong women living in southeastern Pennsylvania and their relatives in Asia did 99 percent of the appliqué work sold in Lancaster County shops by 1987. When asked about the difference between the work of Amish and Hmong seamstresses, an Amish quilt entrepreneur responded that the Hmong work was much better. Hmong quiltmakers also were faster stitchers than their Amish and Mennonite counterparts. Some particularly skilled Hmong women strived to finish quilts from start to finish—including cutting, piecing, appliquéing, and quilting—within a week, a pace most Amish women did not attempt. Like their Amish counterparts, most Hmong quiltmakers earned far below the minimum wage, but they preferred sewing to factory work, the alternative employment for many. Hmong quiltmakers liked working at home, the flexibility of fitting quiltmaking around other activities, and involving both children and grandparents in the activity. According to some estimates, by the late 1980s nearly all Hmong women in the Lancaster County area worked on quilts for the consumer market.