One Thread One Heart: Restoring Hmong culture through Tubberk community’s knitting mastery
Gradually evolving with the internet, our world is becoming increasingly interconnected. It is much easier and cheaper for people to connect with others nowadays compared to the 6th century when carrier pigeons were once a pivotal part of communication. However, this rapid globalisation simultaneously induces numerous challenges for both humans and cultural heritage. According to Dr. T Johnson, there has been a drastic transformation in Asia’s religious makeup since the start of the 20th century. In one of their recent studies, Buddhism, which comprised over 50% Asia population in 1900, declined to 23% in 2020. Hence, such rapid cultural decline fueled by globalisation must be addressed effectively by the leaders of tomorrow: youths.
Globally, modern schools stress the importance of cultural preservation. Instead, they prioritise on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects since they are believed to bring greater prosperity to their countries. In a 2014 press release from GOV.UK, prime minister David Cameron explicitly stated that “Maths and science must be the top priority”; hence, “17,500 [STEM] teachers'' will be trained to prepare students for GCSE courses. Our world is clearly shifting towards an era dominated by sciences and discoveries without an eye to look back at what shaped our society into what it is today. But self-reflection is also a crucial factor for the development of modern society. Cultural preservation not only allows us to identify our mistakes from the past and avoid repeating them but also appreciate what our ancestors have contributed to shape today’s society.
Take Phu Tubberk in Thailand for instance: traditional knitting activities of the hmong* hilltribe are disappearing as families encourage their children to pursue STEM pathways at school, severely dissolving a tight knit network within their community. Not only that, the number of hmong knit patterns in the market (unique only to northern Thailand) are replaced by manufactured cloths from China as tribe members allowed technology to prevail. To address this problem, I founded HeartKnit along with 3 other friends, a startup that aims to restore the lost hmong culture at Phu Tubberk by producing handmade Hmong knit bags from locally sourced raw materials (e.g. dye, cloth) and knitters.
In partnership with Thailand’s Equitable Education Funds, one of Thailand’s leading players against education inequality, we connected with the Tubberk Ruamjai school and organised discussion-based workshops. We guided the locals to outline their own business model, find local suppliers and identify target markets to promote our products. We also guided them to use computer softwares to design and model Hmong patterned bags, and set up a shop on an ecommerce platform -- not only improving their knowledge in computer technologies but also strengthening their connections with their lost traditions.
We have also frequently invited speakers from Universities in Bangkok to visit Phu Tubberk who educated the tribes from increasing productivity to finding distribution channels. Moreover, an increasing number of Thai traditional musicians were invited into the community hall as people knitted our bags, revitalising the vibrant communal atmosphere. However, it was not the numbers or the tick sound whenever an order was placed that delighted us. It was the realisation that we have provided countless jobs to people who never once had the opportunity of employment, and gave their children a chance to relive Tubberk’s knitting traditions. It was, ultimately, their smile that compelled me to endure the early excruciating months with 0 sales. Now, over a year in, HeartKnit received over 500 orders and funded 60,000 Baht to the local community. Additionally, the project received a national award, a 20,000 baht scholarship from the Equity Partnership Program, and a national-scale recognition for our impact on the Tubberk community.
M.F Moonzajer, the author of The Journalist once stated that "[Cultural identity] gives me spiritual, intellectual and emotional distinction from others, and I am proud of it.” At HeartKnit, we use his intellect as our framework. Despite empowering youths with technological skills required for our modern world, we have assured that they will never forget their cultural values, and act as reminders of cultural importance for the people around them because these people will be rare to find in the future.
Looking forward, we look to expand our project with the Akha hill tribes in Chiang Mai by incorporating their colourful Akha patterns into new product linings and reciprocate the cultural vitality fostered back in Tubberk. We have already contacted Keeps Design, a leading international fashion brand in Thailand, to further support the tribe’s traditional values.
We hope to inspire the youths to take action -- albeit big or small -- to make a difference for the community surrounding them.
Check us out on Shoppee @HeartKnit Design.