Preserving Indigenous Vietnamese brocade patterns for new generations with Ho Chi Minh City-based charity Ethnicity


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Preserving Indigenous Vietnamese brocade patterns for new generations with Ho Chi Minh City-based charity Ethnicity

Ethnicity learning about Gia Rai ethnic weaving culture during a trip to IA CHIM commune, Kon Tum

Ho Chi Minh City-based writer An Nguyễn speaks to members of Ethnicity charity to find out more about native Vietnamese brocade—a craft technique that creates raised figurative designs in fabric which all represent different facets of a community’s customs, beliefs, and culture—and how they’re utilizing modern technology to preserve them for future generations.

Vietnam is home to 54 distinct ethnic groups, 53 of which are considered ethnic minorities. A significant number of these groups have long-standing traditions of brocade weaving—a craft technique that creates raised floral and figurative designs in fabric. However, despite their importance in Indigenous communities, brocade weaving, patterns, and their cultural relevance remain a mystery to most of the country.

With this in mind, Ho Chi Minh-based organization Ethnicity aims to learn, safeguard, and disseminate the value of brocade patterns to a broader audience, especially young people. Founded in 2018, the team is made up of eight members who have garnered the support of numerous volunteers and traveled extensively throughout various provinces in Vietnam over the past five years. To date, they’ve delved into the culture and distinct brocade patterns of 13 different ethnic groups, including the K’ho (Lâm Đồng), Mạ (Đồng Nai), Chăm (Ninh Thuận), Mường (Thanh Hoá), Pà Thẻn (Hà Giang), Cơ Tu (Quảng Nam), Bana, Gia Rai, Giẻ Triêng, Rơ Măm, Hrê, Xơ Đăng, and Brâu (Kontum) peoples.

Ethnicity during a trip to Ngọc Hồi district, Kon Tum to learn about B'RÂU ethnic culture

“Some brocades are one of a kind, because the experience of weaving the fabric is a moment the artist cannot recreate.”

While Ethnicity was initially attracted to the colorful and striking patterns on brocade fabrics, as they delved deeper into the topic, they discovered that each brocade pattern is imbued with indigenous knowledge and values. For team member Chenin, who is responsible for research at Ethnicity, one of the key steps to understanding a minority’s brocade pattern is learning about their religious beliefs. Every ethnic group in Vietnam has its own distinct customs, gods, and worldview, resulting in a variety of symbol systems and different interpretations of the patterns. As a result, the same pattern can have different meanings for different communities. While the K’ho people (Lâm Đồng), for example, view a pattern with four symmetrical golden streaks through a central red dot as a depiction of the God of the Sun, and representative of the importance of keeping an optimistic spirit and finding light even when faced with darkness, the Mường people (Thanh Hoá) see the same pattern as indicative of the hibiscus flower, which is often planted in front of homes to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the family.

Ethnicity during a trip to Kon Rẫy district, Kon Tum to learn about Bana ethnic weaving

Brocade patterns are not only expressions of faith, however. Images of war and peace, enemy planes, and heroic soldiers have featured in Indigenous brocades, demonstrating how they can also be used as a way to record life stories and historical events. Documenting history visually is important in Vietnamese Indigenous communities, as many members do not know how to read or write. Instead, they have an incredible visual intelligence, and can weave images that they have saved in their memory without sketching them out first.

The weaving method is difficult to explain: the process is seemingly an act of instinct and inheritance rather than an easily teachable craft. Years of practice help to hone an artisan’s ability to instinctively know the color, quantity, and positions of the threads they need to achieve specific patterns. There is also a great deal of artistry involved. “There are countless stories, thoughts, emotions, and efforts poured into each embroidered pattern,” says Chenin. “Some brocades are one of a kind, as the experience of weaving the fabric is a moment the artist cannot recreate.”

A piece of brocade made by the Gia Rai ethnic group who live in IA CHIM commune, Kon Tum

“There are countless stories, thoughts, emotions, and efforts poured into each embroidered pattern.”

Mr. A Lễ, a member of the Mơ Năm tribe—classified as a brand of the Xơ Đăng ethnic group, they are well-known for the practice of weaving garments from tree-bark cloth and sewing thread— is devoted to preserving his group’s traditional culture and passing on his indigenous knowledge to the younger generation. It’s not a straightforward task, however. “Modern attire is increasingly popular in our communities due to its versatility and suitability for any weather conditions,” he says. “As a result, only a few young individuals are interested in carrying on the tradition of making clothing from leaves and stems.” This predicament is not unique to the Mơ Năm tribe, and is experienced by many ethnic groups in Vietnam.

According to Chenin, “some ethnic minorities are unaware of the significance of their crafts. Ethnicity strives to assist them in being more self-assured in their products, and to promote them through imagery, communication, making the process of preserving and disseminating culture much simpler.” Their work is having a positive impact. “When Ethnicity came to my village, we were elated,” says Mr. Lễ. “We were so grateful that this group of young people were interested in spending time with us. They ate, drank, and conversed with us until late in the night to learn about our Mơ Năm heritage and customs. Their support has bolstered my confidence in preserving my people’s brocade culture.”

A notebook about the brocade culture of the Co Tu ethnic group made by Ethnicity
An example of how Ethnicity vectorizes fabric brocade patterns to be archived in their digital library

“Showcasing Vietnamese ethnic minorities’ way of life can help designers better understand the context in which the local patterns are created. Then, they can use them more authentically in their products.”


All of the information and visuals that Ethnicity collects during their research trips is added to their digital library, an impressive computerized compilation of more than 200 illustrations of brocade patterns. The e-library is not only a repository for data, however. According to Thao Vy, one of Ethnicity’s founding members,  it also provides a means for integrating traditional brocade patterns into contemporary life. The aim is to make them accessible as a source of creative inspiration for designers and artists worldwide.

All of the illustrations in the library are vectorized using modern software, presented in both realistic and pixelated styles, and accompanied by detailed descriptions of their surface level and spiritual meanings. They are also categorized into four sections—conservation, development, application, and illustration—which have their own special features. The development section, for example, offers modified versions of brocade patterns in both color and black and white line drawings created in collaboration with local artists. Conversely, the application section includes templates that designers can use to “apply” the patterns to their own work.

For the Mường people, this pattern represents the hibiscus flower

The content in the illustration section is very different from the rest of the library with paintings showcasing Vietnamese ethnic minorities’ daily life, such as their customs, houses, jobs, and pets. “By having a better understanding of the context in which the local patterns are created, designers can use them more precisely and authentically in their products”, says Vy. Notably, numerous vectorized brocade patterns featured in the e-library were utilized in the decorative designs showcased at the Vietnam 2nd Brocade Culture Festival, held in 2020.

The remote living conditions of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, coupled with the fact that many of the weaving artisans are elderly and only rely on word-of-mouth teaching methods, have made it difficult to accurately research and preserve the brocade culture. Globalization and cultural exchange have also increased the influx of other nations’ patterns, such as those from Japan, China, and America. As they become ubiquitous in Vietnamese markets, native brocade patterns are increasingly overlooked. However, with Ethnicity’s technological acumen, innovative thinking, and design prowess, they are developing an engaging, modern platform that brings Vietnamese Indigenous craft closer to modern society, and will hopefully inspire a new generation to discover the rich crafts and cultures existing across the country.

Ethnicity in Kon Plong district, Kon Tum

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.

Text: An Nguyễn
Photography: All images supplied by Ethnicity Charity


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