Baby Carrier, Thailand, 26 x 17 in.
Yenchen J. Xiong is a fourth year student in the School of Human Ecology, majoring in Textiles and Fashion Design.
In a world with lurking spirits and soul-stealing demons, of tigers who kidnap young maidens, and zombies who haven’t realized they’ve passed on already, there must be a way to protect yourself, protect your family. In shamanistic Hmong culture, there are blessed bracelets and silver pendants, but for babies, there is the extra precaution of a baby carrier. In Hmong White baby carriers (daim nyias Hmoob dawb),the child is camouflaged behind intricate mazes of piecework applique and floral-esque pom-poms where, hopefully, passing spirits may believe them to just be part of the scenery. In this Hmong Leng baby carrier (daim nyias Hmoob lees), the child is hidden behind a block of batik, pinwheel appliques, pom-poms, and cross stitch.
The batik, a clear display of skill of the maker and the skillset their community favors, consists of straight and seed borders filled with fence and leaf frond motifs. Pinwheel appliques play as flower-like additions. An interesting focal point to this section of the baby carrier (daim nyias) is what looks like a spill or stain that erases the batik and reveals the fabric underneath. This may be from an accidental spill while creating the wax-resist, or possibly from a chemical that removed the dye material. It’s not very often that a piece of this quality would be collected, but based on the materials used in other parts of the baby carrier, especially the floral blocks used to shape the batik panel, we may infer that scarcity and time considerations played a role in selecting materials.
The top panel of the carrier is a block of cross-stitched diamonds and appliqued pieces, which are hidden behind pom-poms in an x-formation. Why someone would take the time to create such an intricate and time-consuming piece, only to cover it with pom-poms? It speaks to the craftsmanship and values of the creator, most likely a woman, as well to the care given to the textile in which their child will be carried.
Every piece of this baby carrier, however irregular and lost-and-found, was an intentional addition which speaks not only on the values of the creator and the love they have towards their child, but to a cultural era of change. The Hmong survived the hardships of war and of being refugees in another country, yet still found time to celebrate life, to celebrate culture. This is resilience. If not for the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, pieces of history and life like this baby carrier might not be seen outside of that culture.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.