99-year-old Nguyen Dynasty pillow maker

By Ngan Duong    April 10, 2021 | 11:19 pm PT
Cong Ton Nu Tri Hue is one of the few people left possessing the ancient multiple-fold pillow technique, once popular in the Imperial Citadel of Hue.

Born into a family of royal origin, Cong Ton Nu Tri Hue of Huong Tra District in Hue, central Vietnam is one of the few people still able to make the Vietnamese royal multiple-fold pillow, typically found at royal shrines and temples across the town.

Called "trai dua" in Vietnamese, this multiple-fold pillow is made by attaching four or five rectangular cushions, each about five cm thick.

Hue is a granddaughter of Duke Nguyen Phuc Mien Lam of Hoai Duc, the 57th son of Minh Mang, the Nguyen Dynasty king who reigned from 1820-1841.

At the age of 17, she learned sewing and embroidery at the loyal palace. Here, she also learned about the royal multiple-fold pillow, which could support the head, back, and arms while reading, reciting poetry, or drinking.

According to Hue, multiple-fold pillow makers must comply with traditional rules: the king’s pillow must have five cushions, while those of the queen mother, concubines and mandarins must have four.

"Choosing the fabric color is also very important. Usually, gold was only used for the king, with concubines and mandarins using blue, green, and purple pillows," she said.

Assigned to sew pillows for Bao Dai, the last king of Vietnam (ruling from 1925-1945), Hue paid specific attention to the size of the throne and stuffing since Bao Dai was taller than other Nguyen Dynasty emperors.

As a result, Bao Dai was very pleased with the pillows made by Hue. Many of his French friends ordered pillows from Hue as gifts for their families.

Hue sewed pillows according to the colors of the five primal elements. Besides making pillows for the king, she also sewed clothes for queen mother Duc Tu Cung. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

Besides making pillows for the king, Hue also sewed clothes for queen mother Duc Tu Cung. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

While making royal multiple-fold pillows is not too difficult, it requires meticulousness.

"That day, the teacher spoke briefly, giving little direct guidance. I unstitched an old pillow and taught myself. The more meticulous we are, the tighter the pillow would be, retaining its smoothness, tension, and swelling without going flat, even after a long time," she said.

The first step in making a royal multiple-fold pillow entails cutting fabric into equal sized pieces, then sewing them into kits. Next, measured amounts of cotton are inserted into each kit to ensure a stiff form. Finally, each is sewn together to create the pillow.

"A beautiful pillow has not noticeable stitches," Hue said.

A pillow without a case. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

A pillow without a case. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

In time, this type of pillows fell out of favor. Only occasionally is Hue asked to replace pillows still found at historical relics. Due to her fathomless experience, she was approached by a researcher wanting to restore certain Hue traditions.

Ever since, her pillow making skills have become more widely known, with longevity ceremony or decoration orders streaming in. Besides, Hue was invited to supply multiple-fold pillows for a scene in the ‘Phuong Khau’, a Vietnamese film about concubines in the time of King Thieu Tri (reigning from 1841-1847).

With the tradition slowly fading, the seamstress hoped to preserve the art by passing it down to younger generations. Her first student was her daughter-in-law, Le Thi Lien, followed by her niece. Today, all three support each other to create royal multiple-fold pillows.

"By helping my mother, I have gradually learned to make this type of pillows. It takes us five days to make one, though it may take a month for my mother if working by herself. All processes are done by hand, so it takes time and demands a meticulous touch," Lien said.

Each five-cushion pillow is sold for VND1.8 million ($78).

Tuan Doan, a tourist in Hue, commented: "Her beautiful pillow is done very well. I am really impressed by the fact she is nearly 100 years old, still lucid and able to do needlework."

Hue said though she has little time left to develop this profession, she won’t give it up.

"I taught my daughter-in-law the art to uphold the tradition and culture," she said.

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