…Experiencing and Creating Korean Beauty…

Creating traditional handicrafts, rather than just looking at them, makes you appreciate them all the more. And throughout Korea, there’s the opportunity to do just that in a series of craftshops that show you how to make traditional pottery, knotting, embroidery and dyeing. This firsthand experience with traditional craftworks, no matter how brief, will open the door to a far greater understanding of the artistry, practical value and history of these remarkable pieces.

Bukcheon, in central Seoul, is the best place in the capital to experience traditional Koran culture. Some 20 studios here run programs in folk painting, traditional paper, kites and much else. Haneul Mulbit, which focuses on traditional knotting, dyeing and patchwork, is owned by 75-year-old Cho Soo-hyun, a 40 year veteran of knotting. Bucking the staid, highly secretive world of traditional crafts, Cho has drawn in a new generation of fans with her passion and openness. Today, her son Lucas Hong, a researcher of traditional dyeing, and her daughter Hong Gwang-hee, who studies traditional patchwork, help their mother run the studio.

Traditional knotting uses round-shaped braids to create patterns, which are then used to make accessories. Knotting was long used in norigae (ornaments for women), belts, pockets and seonchu (fan ornaments) and the technique has continued to evolve to this day.

Involving spinning thread, dyeing it and then tying it into knots, knotting is slow, painstaking work. Becoming an expert takes at least a couple of years, but just about anyone can make something pretty in an hour or two using ready-made thread.

The easiest knotting technique is known as dongsimgyeol. Dongsim means “the same heart”, and signifies that whichever direction you tie the knots in, the four points of the compass (north, south, east and west) will still be pointing in the same directions. In the one-day experience program, visitors make a necklace or bracelet using this technique.

Kwak Soo-young, a jewelry designer, has been going to Haneum Mulbit once a week for six months. “I’ve always been interested in traditional craftwork,” she says. “I signed up for the class because I wanted to incorporate some traditional knotting into jewelry designing. It’s been difficult to master some techniques but it is a lot of fun.”

Patchwork is similar to hand-made quilts in many Western countries, so the patchwork experience program is especially popular among foreingers. Hong Gwang-hee, who runs the program, says, “In patchwork, depending on fabric and colors, you can make a whole range a different products, so it is never boring”.

It takes up to three months to make a complete patchwork, so the one-day program lets visitors make a hand mirror or a brooch. The process begins with picking three or four colors of cloth, through the design, then the sewing. All the pieces are ready to go on the same day, making the visit ideal for tourists passing through.

One traditional craftwork experience program is for natural dyeing. Rather than using chemical dyes, traditional Korean dyeing uses elements from nature to for these dyes include persimmon, indigo, walnut and bamboo. They can also be extracted from red clay and squid ink – so essentially anything with a color.

Cheongdo-gun in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province is home to about 30 studios offering programs in natural dyeing. The county produces about a quarter of all persimmons consumed in Korea –  but nowadays, much of the crop has another purpose.

In July 2010, persimmons start falling from the trees, and unripe ones are simply discarded. When a typhoon passes through, a huge number of persimmons accumulate in the ground, with many going to waste. Then many years ago, Cheongdo native Kim Jong-baek started picking up these persimmons to use as the source of dyes. When farmers worried about wasted persimmons, Kim would teach them how to dye using unripe ones. It was such a success that Kim made a living out of it, and in 1998, he opened his own studio, Kkokduseoni.

Dyeing with persimmon is a simple process. First, you need to was a handkerchief  or a piece of cloth in water and dry it in the sunlight. Then dip the fabric into the persimmon extract, and work it in gently. After 10 or 15 minutes, squeeze all the moisture out and hang it on a line to dry. The color comes to life as it dries under the sun.

The tannins in persimmon leave a brown color when dried in sunlight. Different shades are achieve by first spraying water onto the dried cloth then drying for four or five days. Repeating this process three to four times is the only way to get the full range of persimmon colors.

Kkokduseoni also has a gallery of products, displaying clothes, carpets and more. A video shows other dyestuff, such as tea leaves, and chestnut blossoms. Enjoy traditional arts: they will even color your heart and soul.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, January 2011


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