Old artisan preserves the soul of embroidery
Update: Nov 19, 2008
When one sees Pham Viet Dinh’s long fingers rhythmically working with a needle and thread, it’s hard to believe that he is already 77 years old.

The man looks younger and stronger than his age with his bright eyes, close-cropped snow-white hair and long white beard.

Dinh first began embroidery when he was 14. He was born in 1932 in Quat Dong village, Thuong Tin district, former Ha Tay province (now in Hanoi) as one of seven children in a family well-known in the region for their four generations of skilled embroidery craft.

Life’s passion

"I was dreaming about green and red stitches before I learnt my A, B, Cs," Dinh recalls with a smile.

His first clumsy attempt at sewing left him with bleeding fingertips. But he didn’t give up. "I understand any job is difficult and requires patience," he says. "I was determined to learn simply because I love it."

Like many fellow villagers, he traces his ancestry back to Le Cong Hanh, the Vietnamese ambassador who brought embroidery techniques back from China. For generations, Dinh’s family has supplemented their farming income with embroidery sales.

In 1946, the French attacked Quat Dong village and surrounding communities to keep Uncle Ho’s supporters from retaining control of the country. The village didn’t resume its art until 1950. Dinh then continued to embroider but also farmed and his village elected him as a model worker. And at the age of 28, he had the honour of meeting President Ho Chi Minh. Dinh abandoned his art throughout the American war while he farmed in the central province of Nghe An.

In 1972, he returned to Quat Dong and became the technical advisor and quality control inspector for his village and surrounding areas while they sold their embroidery to Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and other socialist nations. The villagers concentrated on making tables-cloths, bed-sheets and hand-towels but stopped exporting after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ever since doi moi, the villagers have concentrated on selling to tourists.

Dinh’s years of experience shine through his work. Close examination shows his great technical expertise, which is particularly apparent when one compares his work with that of lesser skilled artisans.

The facial features of the characters in Dinh’s pictures are sharply defined, their outlines are clean, and his stitches are smooth yet intricate. Indeed, he has crossed over from craft person to folk artist.

The family tradition will continue for Dinh is now teaching his 13 -year- old grand daughter Trang who shows great promise.

Ten mice for Tet

Dinh’s embroidered pictures have stirred the passions of the many foreign visitors who have visited his home.

It’s difficult for him to remember all of them but he can still remember the 1990 visit of a French woman who specialized in decorating the ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress).

‘I also remember a German woman who worked in Vietnamese law. She bought the pictures that tell the famous stories of Quan Am Thi Kinh (Kwan Yin Thi Kinh) and Luu Binh Duong Le and asked Dinh to embroider those pictures. She then made a book for her friends and family."

However, the most special guest Dinh received in his house was an American, Mrs Cynthia Weill, who published the famous book Ten Mice for Tet with his embroidered pictures in 2003 in the US.

"It was in 2000. I remember she came to my house with over 50 other women who were taking part in the Women’s International Congress. While the women were busy choosing embroidered pictures to buy, Weill spent time admiring the embroidered pictures that were hung on my wall and paid special attention to the picture Dam Cuoi Chuot (The Mouse Wedding)," Dinh remembers.

Cynthia Weill discovered the embroidery of Quat Dong while she was running the education department of an international relief organization in Hanoi. She thought the embroideries would make beautiful illustrations for a book, so she contacted an author friend, Pegi Deitz Shea, who has written about Southeast Asia since her visit in 1989. Together they came up with the idea for Ten Mice for Tet.

To create the illustration, award-winning children’s book illustrator To Ngoc Trang first drew the pictures. Then Dinh laid the pictures over a piece of cloth and stuck pins through their outlines. He sprinkled blue powder over the pinholes, which left the outline on the cloth when the picture was lifted. He then embroidered the cloth with cotton thread. Finally, a special camera was used to photograph the embroideries so the book could be printed.

This colourful counting book introduces children to the rich traditions of Vietnam’s lunar New Year. A village of playful mice leads young readers through the joyful celebration, as exquisitely embroidered illustrations recreate ten scenes of preparation, gift giving, feasting and fireworks displays with simple text and an informative afterward. Ten Mice for Tet is an engaging tribute to a special holiday. "My many conversations with Dinh, Quat Dong’s master craftsman, taught me so much about the history of embroidery in Vietnam and also gave me a glimpse into the social and political history of the nation during the 20th century," says Weill. "Although I’ve made many friends during my two years in Vietnam, Dinh and his family are special. I hope the common bond we have formed through the art of embroidery will continue for many years," Weill said in an article published in the Vietnam Cultural Window magazine, in December 2004.

Ten Mice for Tet was placed on the International Reading Association’s Notable Books for a Global Society List in 2004 as well as Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children. It received rave reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal.

"I’m proud of the awards Ten Mice for Tet received. However, I’m even prouder of a project that brought so many Americans and Vietnamese together to work on something beautiful for children. The finished product is a true act of reconciliation between two nations formerly at war," she wrote on her personal website. In the book, which she dedicated to Dinh’s family, she wrote: "To my dear Mr Dinh and his wonderful family. You will always be in my heart. Love."

A copy of the cover of Ten Mice for Tet is now in the holdings of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.

For Dinh, embroidery has become his life’s passion. "It continues to be my reason to live," he says.