Praised as a Cultural Asset, He Peels Back the Fabric of Time

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Praised as a Cultural Asset, He Peels Back the Fabric of Time

Hansan, located in South Chungchong province, used to be the best place in Korea for the production of semosi, a fine ramie fabric, and be, a hemp fabric. So, it was natural that the parts for looms, such as reeds and shuttles, were manufactured in that area.

The shuttle and reed work together in the process of weaving cloth on a loom, though each has a different shape and function. The shuttle, which looks like a boat, leads the yarn through the filling thread known as the weft and the reed makes the woven threads even. After repeating the process of weaving many times, the threads finally assume the form of hemp fabric.

Many craftsmen who specialized in making reeds or shuttles used to live in Jongji-ri, a village in the Hansan area, when hemp cloth was the most loved of all textiles. Mass produced materials, however, began to replace handmade be (coarse linen) and semosi when industrialization overtook the nation during the 1970s. Now there is only one craftsman left in the village who continues the tradition of making reeds.

Gu Jin-gap, 84, a master of making badi, the reed for a loom, is recognized by the government as an intangible cultural asset. Mr. Gu was born into a family of tenant farmers and started to learn to make badi at age 23, which was rather old for becoming an apprentice but he did his best to learn the skill from his very strict teacher, Lee Jong-seok.

"I would rather pay money than work as an apprentice again. The three years of my apprenticeship were that hard," recalls the craftsman. During his years as an apprentice, Mr. Gu often would cut his hands on pieces of bamboo and made a lot of mistakes. Whenever he made a mistake, his teacher would scold and whip him. He wanted to run away many times but did not because he was too grateful to his teacher for taking him on. Mr. Gu says that if it were not for Lee Jong-seok, he probably would have become an unemployed itinerant.

A badi is made from thin bamboo pieces called dae-ori, and looks like a comb with numerous teeth. A badi may look easy to make but it requires careful handicraft, since it is an important part of a loom.

The first step for making a badi is to make its teeth by cutting down a three to four year old bamboo branch and splitting it into 10 to 12 pieces. After removing the insides of the bamboo pieces, they are then split again to make dae-ori. Those thin pieces are dried under the sun for about a month and cut evenly into equal lengths. The trimmed teeth are put between the frame of a badi, threaded and then, tied to each end of the badi.

Sae is a Korean unit used for measuring the fineness of a fabric. The sae of a given material depends on whether the badi used for making the fabric is fine or not. Semosi produced by using a badi made in the Hansan area was often praised for being "as fine as the wings of a dragonfly," since the ramie fabric produced there was much finer than the silk produced in other areas. Such praise, however, is now seldom heard since few people want to use a traditional badi these days.

"Who would want to use a traditional badi when people now wear nylon produced in factories? Even semosi is loomed using a metal badi," said Mr. Gu.

The old craftsman has unwillingly accepted social changes but has not stopped making badi. He makes them in his spare time when he is not farming, but he no longer goes to the market to sell them because he knows that no one will buy them. Orders for badi are now placed once or twice a year. When asked why he keeps on making them, he said he needs to spend his spare time doing something. The real reason, however, seemed to be that he knows only too well that traditional badi will become a thing of the past if he stops.

by Lee Chul-jae

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