In Yer Xiong’s living room, Ko Vang Xiong is bent over the layers of cloth in her lap, taking tiny, even stitches with a needle a half inch long. She is making a leaf-pattern reverse applique: the outlines and veins of leaves are cut in the top layer of fabric and then the edges turned under to reveal the fabric below. The craft requires stitches that are practically invisible, and each leaf is about five inches long. With the help of her teacher, Yer, Ko Vang hopes to finish two in the next four hours.

Ko Vang and Yer are Hmong immigrants, and the needlework they make is called pandau. Ko Vang, who visits Yer every Sunday, is good at her craft; her needlework has been exhibited and sold. But Yer is considered a master.

The 200 or so Hmong in Chicago, who live mainly in Uptown, came here from Thai refugee camps, where they had fled from their homeland of Laos during the Vietnam war. The Hmong culture–and the making of pandau–is centuries old.

The word pandau, which means “cloth made beautiful like a flower,” includes several different types of handiwork: reverse applique, embroidery on tapestry, and clothing in dozens of patterns. Some pandau tell stories in embroidered scenes; more common are the large geometric wall hangings. Though it was relatively unknown a few years ago, pandau is quickly becoming popular among folk art collectors.

All Hmong women make pandau; they learn it from their mothers starting as young as three years old. Chao Yang, a member of the Hmong Folk Arts Project, an Uptown group whose goal is to promote and preserve the art of pandau, says that making pandau is a matter of pride and a way of preserving the culture’s traditions, and every Hmong woman knows how to do one or two patterns well. But only master artists, like Yer, know all of pandau’s many patterns and techniques.

About a year ago, Ko Vang–also a member of the Folk Arts Project–expressed interest in learning more patterns. “She wants to be a master,” Chao says. “If she can’t do that, she wants to know more patterns to teach children.”

Members of the project, interested in keeping the techniques of pandau alive, applied for a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. When the grant was approved, they set out to find Ko Vang a tutor. After talking to nearly 20 pandau artists they chose Yer. “[The artists] recommended her,” Chao says. “She works most easily with the patterns.”

Ko Vang started her apprenticeship in April, and so far she has kept to her goal of completing one pandau a month. Yer is mostly teaching her patterns for reverse applique work, made by folding the top layer of cloth in quarters and cutting the design into it–without ruler or compass.

The patterns Ko Vang will learn are traditional; when she becomes a true master, she’ll design original patterns. Ko Vang does not speak English, but through Chao she says that before she started studying with Yer, she knew only one applique pattern: the worm, a pretty, squiggly geometric.

Ko Vang will spend six months studying with Yer. Although Ko Vang will know almost every pattern by the end of her apprenticeship, “the time is not enough for learning to become a master,” Chao says. It will take her years to become as adept at handling the fabric as Yer.

Like all Hmong who share the same surname, and are therefore descended from the same clan, they call each other cousins. (Hmong with the same grandfather call each other brother and sister.) But in their shared love of the precise snips, tiny stitches, and patience required by their craft, they are much closer than cousins.

An exhibit of pandau–including the work of Ko Vang Xiong, Yer Xiong, and 13 other Hmong artists–opens Wednesday at the Beacon Street Gallery, 4520 N. Beacon, and runs through August 30. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6. The pandau will be sold on Fridays and Saturdays 11 to 5; prices range from $15 to $1500. For details, call 561-3500 or 907-2184.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.