One of the world’s most ancient cultures came alive in Sacramento on Sunday at Parkview Presbyterian Church, where colorful Iu-Mien embroidery featuring stitches dating back thousands of years were displayed in ceremonial clothing, baby carriers, sashes, caps and tablecloths.
For centuries the Iu-Mien, tribespeople from China and Laos, had no written language. They passed on their traditions orally and through embroidery that told stories with a variety of intricate stitches. Different types of weave stitches represent fathers, mothers and families through marriage. Cross stitches signify the household rules to love, respect, tolerate, help, take care of and protect each other.
This life-affirming embroidery is being resuscitated in Sacramento – home to 15,000 Iu-Mien, the largest population outside of Asia – by Iu-Mien Community Services, a nonprofit that sponsors a free embroidery class on Saturdays.
“It’s very meaningful because we carry on our culture,” said embroidery teacher Nai Sely, 51, who was born in Laos and learned to stitch as a little girl. “It started back in China,” said Sely, who learned from her grandparents and now teaches 10 students between the ages of 8 and 60.
The embroidery, some of it festooned with silver jewelry for ceremonial dress worn for weddings, the start of the new year and other key life events, can take up to two months to complete, Sely said. Adding to their complexity, they are stitched from back to front based on diagrams that are reverse images of what’s finally created.
On display was a pair of blue men’s pants that featured different stitches representing the son, the mother, the father and the fact that the son had married into a different clan, explained Betty Louie, a Chinese American embroidery student. “They’re like pictographs.”
The Iu-Mien originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. Their shamans, or spirit healers, learned Chinese and codified their shamanistic practices, but the Iu-Mien people didn’t create their own written language using Latin letters until 1984, long after they’d fled Laos, where they’d served with U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
The embroidery – some of which depicts elephants, rabbits, deer, roosters, chickens and birds – “shows how we lived,” said Embroidery Project coordinator Suiying Saechao, 29, who works for the State Franchise Tax Board. “It tells the story of who we are. That’s why teaching the next generations is really important because our culture is dying and we have to keep it alive.”
The show and class were funded by a grant obtained with the help of Maurine Huang, a member of Parkview Presbyterian and an “adult beginner who wants to pass on the traditional artform.”
Pastor Aart van Beek said the church, which started in 1912 as the Japanese Church of Christ, has a long history of nurturing Sacramento’s diversity.
After Iu-Mien musicians performed traditional songs Sunday, Nai Sio Saechao, president of Iu-Mien Community Services, modeled ceremonial garb with the help of her mom, Feuy Saechao.
“Some of the pieces are very old and have been preserved in suitcases for many, many years, so we are lucky that our moms are able share them,” Saechao said. “For the Mien people, clothing and embroidery go hand in hand.”
If you go
The free Iu-Mien Embroidery class meets from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays at 5625 Stockton Blvd. For more information, email MienEmbroidery@gmail.com or call Iu-Mien Community Services at 916-383-3083.