Needlecraft Is More Than an Art of the Well-Bred

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Needlecraft Is More Than an Art of the Well-Bred

The sexes were often kept apart in old Korea, and particularly among the nobility, this lead to what is now termed "gyubang culture." Gyubang means "women's quarters," and it was here that women from higher class families spent much of their time, "cultivating" themselves - reading improving literature, practicing calligraphy, sewing - in much the same way that Jane Austen's heroines were taught to be "accomplished."

Embroidery (jasu) was a much practiced women's pursuit and a skill required of every refined woman.

A letter dating from King Sunjo's reign (1800-1834) during the Choson dynasty illustrates the deep attachment to embroidery of many women in those days. Called Jochimmun, it is a letter of condolence from a Mrs. Yu to her favorite needle after it broke while she was sewing. In the letter, Mrs. Yu laments her loss, describing the things she used to do with the needle - "quilting, broadstitching, backstitching and blindstitching."

The skills that Mrs. Yu lists in her letter are the most basic techniques needed for embroidering and must be mastered before any embroidery can be attempted. It is not a technically simple occupation.

Embroidery has been around in Korea for a long time. "Samgukji," a famed Chinese novel written in the medieval years, is based on historical record and set in the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China (220-265). It contains a chapter concerning the Three Kingdoms of Korea (circa B.C. 57-660). Here it describes the people of Koguryo, one of the Three Kingdoms, wearing embroidered silk clothes.

The oldest remaining Korean embroidery work is the "Cheonsuguk Mandara," two large tapestries dating from the seventh century and preserved in a Buddhist temple in Japan. Three craftsmen, including Ga Seo-il of Koguryo, collaborated on sketching its design, and skilled female embroiderers completed the work under the direction of Jin Gu-ma from Paekje (also of the Three Kingdoms). As dyeing and weaving skills improved through the Koryo and Choson periods, embroidery techniques grew more sophisticated.

In spite of such a long history, embroidery has long endured low status as "woman's work." When Han Sang-su learned to embroider for the first time at school, she thought of it not as an artistic form but as a skill she had to acquire. Ms. Han, now 65, is a jasujang or master of embroidery, and is recognized as an intangible cultural asset by the government. She was attending elementary school on Cheju island in 1945 when she embroidered a peony blossom on a small pouch in class. Her teacher praised the work so highly that she began to consider embroidering for a living.

Later, she began to embroider small patterns or traditional scenes of daily life whenever she had time, and with natural aptitude and lots of practice, she became a master at the job.

Ms. Han has been researching and collecting materials on Korean traditional embroidery since 1952, when she won a prize for her embroidered works at the National Art Exhibition. She says she felt impelled to learn more about the distinctive qualities of Korean embroidery, visiting museums and individual collectors to find the materials she needed. Her long research led to two books on embroidery, one on Choson dynasty embroidery (published 1974) and the other on embroidery in Buddhism (published in 1983).

Ms. Han has not abandoned her needle for a pen. She has been recreating some embroidered works from long ago, such as the beautiful covers of volumes of the Buddhist sutra of the Koryo dynasty and a robe worn by Daegakguksa, a renowned Buddhist priest. The work is painstaking - she has been working on recreating the "Cheonsuguk Mandara" for the last 20 years. She has also found the time to establish two embroidery shops, but she will now hand these over to her daughter, who has studied embroidery in China and Taiwan, to concentrate on recreating old embroidery masterpieces.

Mrs. Han's embroidery shops are located in Cheongdam-dong in Seoul (opposite the Galleria department store) and in Hadong in North Kyongsang province. Her works vary from small pouches to grand folding screens. A two-fold screen will set you back three million won (about $2,300) and an eight-fold screen over 20 million won, but for those with shallower pockets, items such as cellular phone straps are available at 10,000 won, or hand mirrors with embroidered backs at 30,000 won. For more information about products, call the shops at 02-548-1545 (Seoul) or 054-745-6901 (Korean service only).

by Chang Hy-soo

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