At a small wooden house in the Central Highlands commune of Dai Lao, three sisters sit glued to their embroidery frames from dusk till dawn.
Three sisters hard at work as embroiderers in the Central Highlands Dai Lao Commune
Stopping intermittently for the odd break, all of them fully immerse themselves in what is not only their job but a mutual passion shared by the women of this small, poverty-ridden community.
During its heyday from the late 1980s to early 1990s, Dai Lao was part of the grand silkworm breeding industry of Central Highlands Bao Loc before it fell apart about a decade later.
Embroidery, originally a hobby passed through generations of the women here, is now a major source of income for the families of the village.
Most Dai Lao embroiderers learnt the craft from other family members and have grown so attached to it because of the sense of freedom they derive from the creative process.
“I work until day-end but have never run out of paintings to make,” Ha, one of the three sisters, said. “It’s really wonderful to have this kind of freedom. No one checks up on you, no one tries to measure your work.”
20-year-old Hue, the oldest of the group, said she decided to stop school after graduating from high school in order to devote the rest of her life to embroidery.
Hue’s older sister also has an 11-year-old daughter who has begun learning the art of embroidery.
The works are inspired from different themes, ranging from daily activities to natural landscapes, such as rivers, streams, animals and human portraits.
The type of needle-work needs a high level of concentration, accuracy and patience. Before sewing, some embroiders create their own sketches, some print their favorite photos from the internet while others ask local painters to create sketches according to their description.
Each painting takes about two weeks to three months to complete, some require the work of more than one embroiderer.
But no matter how hard they work, their creations are often overshadowed by well-known embroidery brands like Dalat-based XQ.
“Our paintings are sold for prices ten times lower than famous brands like XQ even though the quality is the same,” she said.
Often embroideries from Dai Lao are sold to painting sellers to be attached to brand names and sold for high prices in Ho Chi Minh City and the resort cities of Vung Tau and Nha Trang.
But what the artists earn from their hard work is almost nothing compared to the sales tags found at the galleries.
It is said that a Dai Lao painting which is sold by an embroiderer for VND1.5 million (US$84.27) will be sold at some shop for VND20 million ($1,123).
Luong Thi Hong Van, owner of a local embroidery workshop said she even declined orders from tourists to make copies of a XQ painting worth VND30 million ($1,685).
Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, owner of another workshop which houses 40 embroiders said attaching the names of well-known brands onto their products meant they would be able to sell the paintings at sky-high prices.
“But we will never do that,” she said.
A number of local embroiders have begun seeking end buyers at local galleries and even on the streets in the tourism hub of HCMC. But it is still a long road ahead for the artists to have their works recognized by greater public.
“At first, I had to sell my pieces for very low prices to win customers as people complained that my paintings don’t belong to any brand,” said Kim Thi Sang, a Dai Lao embroiderer who has spent several months traveling between her hometown and HCMC looking for potential customers.
“Until now, people still compare our paintings to those being sold at wet markets,” she said.