Reed Weaver Keeps Alive a Dying Korean Art

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Reed Weaver Keeps Alive a Dying Korean Art

Koreans have for centuries woven marsh reeds, or sedge, into products such as cushions, boxes and workbaskets. Objects made of sedge (called wang-gol or wancho in Korean) are beautiful, natural and durable.

Yanagi Muneyoshi, a Japanese expert on Korean art, praised the beauty of Korean traditional sedge product in his book, "Straw and Sedge Crafts of Choson." He writes that the sedge products of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), though man-made, are free from artificiality and full of nature.

Lee Sang-jae, 58, is a wancho-jang, a craftsman who specializes in making sedge products. He is recognized by the government as an intangible cultural asset. In his hands, reeds become works of art.

He was taught to make sedge goods from the age of 14 by an old man in his neighborhood. A childhood attack of polio had left him paralyzed from the waist down and he had worried that he would not be able to earn a living. The occupation suited him because he had talent in handicrafts and did not need to move around while he worked. Talent and long hours of practice paid off, and he was soon recognized as a skilled weaver.

Mr. Lee left his hometown, Gangwha, Kyonggi province, in the late 1970s, when there was low demand for his work. He moved from city to city, teaching others his skills, but sedge was difficult to find in urban areas and he missed home, so after two years he returned to his hometown, Gangwha, now a district of Inchon city.

Mr. Lee has been making sedge goods for over 45 years, but says the work does not get easier with time and still tests his patience. A small cushion, the easiest thing to make, requires a day's work. A "nest" of three boxes called a samhap takes from five to 10 days. A hwamunseok, or sedge carpet, takes over 600,000 hand movements to complete.

Sedge reeds are grown in a seedbed in April and a month later are moved to a paddy. Between July and August, the reeds reach the height of small children. They are split into stripes, steamed in a cauldron, and then dried several times under the sun. This process bleaches the sedge yellowish and puts a shine on the surface of the reeds.

There is a certain technique to making sedge goods. Dried sedge reeds are twisted into cords called no, which are plaited to form, for example, the base of a basket. When the bottom is finished, sam-ori, three wefts or strands, are woven tightly to form the sides of the basket (undu). They are woven leaving an excess of material, so that the edges can be folded in and tucked in place at the end.

A lining of hemp cloth is then placed inside the basket, leaving a totally natural, product made without a single stitch.

In the early 1980s, more than 1,000 households in the Gangwha area were still producing sedge products to supplement their incomes during the farming off-season. These days, however, sedge crafts are much less widely produced, possibly because they take so much time. The government has had to encourage people to continue the tradition by recognizing excellent craftsmen as intangible cultural assets.

Mr. Lee is extremely good at weaving beautiful patterns, one of the most difficult parts of the sedge craft.

He is considered a master in tteumjil, weaving patterns such as letters or flowers, and his works are praised for their even weaved surfaces and superbly composed patterns. His works have won many national competitions for special traditional products, and are also known abroad. Every year, a Japanese collector purchases large numbers of his reed craft works.

Many students have learned sedge crafts from Mr. Lee. Of his disciples, Yu Seon-ok - his wife - is the best. Mrs. Yu learned the skills from her husband in her spare time. She won the President's award at a Traditional Crafts Exhibition in 1999 for her baskets, which are used to serve refreshments.

"My wife is the best pupil I ever had. She is even better than I am in weaving carefully and exactly," said the proud husband.

Sedge products made by Mr. Lee and his students can be purchased by calling him for a prior reservation. For more information, call Mr. Lee at home at 032-932-9018 (Korean language only).

by Lee Chul-jae

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