Royal College of Art student Grace Crannis went to Vietnam for a research residency, to document female Master artisans, who teach their daughters craft through life.

Words by Grace Crannis. 

In December, I travelled for two weeks with textile artisans in rural northern Vietnam as part of a research residency. We were there to spend time with the women as they explained their processes to us, observing and interviewing them about their daily lives and the context within which they worked. In the rural mountainous regions of north Vietnam, women power their communities. They lead demanding, physical lives; balancing caring for families, crops, and animals with textile production. The men we saw seemed to blend into the background. 

"They sit together on the porch, talking and laughing as they spin hemp fibre with their friends, giggling as they discuss sex and marriage. The work is slow but there is a sense of joy radiating from them as they work and chat together."

Grace Cannis.

Tenaya Steed.

Master artisans teach their daughters, and practice their craft long into their life. Three generations of women sit together on the porch, talking and laughing as they spin hemp fibre with their friends, giggling as they discuss sex and marriage. The work is slow but there is a sense of joy radiating from them as they work and chat together. 

Mùa Y Song is 73, and a master batik artisan. She can’t read or write because she never had the chance to go to school, but she remembers the chaotic streets of Hanoi so perfectly from her years spent travelling to sell her fabrics that everyone wants to visit the city with her. Work and life are completely intertwined, and the knowledge and experience of village elders are always needed. I realised at the end of the trip that hardly anyone wore glasses. In Na Phon, a rural area to the south west of Hanoi, we bump into Xuyên on the road. She is dressed for work in a conical non hat and loose clothes. 

"Villagers of all ages have gathered together outside the primary school to help build the road that is being resurfaced."

Grace Crannis.

Stick Gals. By Tenaya Steed.

Villagers of all ages are working together to resurface the road outside the primary school. It is common for members of the community to band together to finish infrastructure projects in this way, and there is a real collaborative sense about the way they organise the community and keep it running. Xuyên takes us back to her home outside the village. She takes us back to her house, past the shop she co-runs with her weaving group, which sells the products of local women. There are thirty women in her group, with ages spanning three or four decades. She shares her house with three generations of her family, and show us how she winds bright yellow raw silk onto spools. She raised the worms herself, feeding them on moonbury leaves she grew in the garden. Certificates acknowledging her achievements in the community, mainly for teaching women about birth control, line the walls of the house. 

Lots of the women we speak to have similar certificates, often for things like midwifery or community education schemes. People are very proud of them, and they are the main source of decoration on the walls. In Hanoi, the way people live and work is striking. Everywhere you look in the city, people of all ages are socialising, eating, drinking, creating, selling, and working on the streets. Young people learn their craft from their elders as they work together. At the women’s museum, there was an exhibition about a care centre which asked residents about how their life has changed with age. There were some positive stories, but most of the answers focused heavily on loss and the sadness of growing older, or regrets about children and family. It was very emotional, and some of the language they used on the captions was very patronising. One of the boards compared the residents to children, which made me instantly upset. 

Xuyên spinning raw silk fibre outside her house. White Thai ethnic group, in Na Phon village, Hoa Binh province, to the West of Hanoi. By Tenaya Steed.

Most of the people who lived there wanted to be in communities with their peers, rather than alone at home while their children were working. There is still a lot of stigma about this in Vietnamese society, and a sense that you are failing your parents by not looking after them at home, even if it is their decision. Back in the countryside, we stumble across a powerful melody that resonates around the valley. At the community centre, a group of older women are grouped together around a canoe shaped rice pounder, each holding thick, arm-span length sticks of bamboo. 

The sound cracks around the open space with a powerful, blunt force. Originally practiced as part of the death celebration, the villagers have adapted the performance, called Keeng Lońg in Thai language, for the upcoming village fete. They are practicing now, stopping every now and then to correct the rhythm. The activity is partly as an exercise for the older ladies, as the process is quite physically demanding. They are all immaculately dressed in the long velvet skirts, tight coloured long sleeves tops in bright green or purple with multi-coloured fabric bands wrapped around their chests. They all have hair smoothed into a tight bun, drawn eyebrows and some wear lipstick. Across the field, a group of teenagers play football.

Grace third from the left. By Huyen Nguyen

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