Zen and the Art of Quilting: Develop Patience

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Zen and the Art of Quilting: Develop Patience

The warmth of quilted clothes is often compared to the warmth of a mother's bosom in Korea. It may be true that Koreans like to compare anything warm to a "mother's bosom," but here the metaphor also likens the concentrated effort that it takes to make a quilted garment to a mother's devotion to her child.

Korean traditional quilting is usually done by stitching parallel, narrow lines into layers of cloth with padding in between. It differs somewhat from the western style of quilting where patterns are often sewn into the layers of cloth. Clothing quilted by the Korean traditional method is extremely warm and durable, and is thus used for making bedclothes, cloth squares to wrap and carry items in the Korean way, and various garments, including jackets, coats, skirts, pants, and even socks.

A mural in an ancient burial mound built in the Koguryo kingdom in the fifth century suggests that people wore quilted clothes at that time and thus that quilting has been around in Korea for at least 1,500 years.

The tradition of wearing quilted clothes continued down the centuries. Women used to make protective garments using quilted cloth for their husbands when they went to war. Babies were given quilted baby clothes on their first birthday as many believed the clothes would keep babies in good health and help them live long.

Kim Hae-ja, 49, is a craftswoman who has been making quilted works for over 20 years. She is recognized as an "intangible cultural asset" by the government. Her creations are sometimes considered not just garments, but works of art.

Ms. Kim began to learn how to sew and make hanbok, Korean traditional clothes, as a child, learning the skills from her mother and an elderly relative. Later when Ms. Kim began to make quilted clothes, she visited museums and Buddhist temples all over the country to learn about styles of dress and decoration.

In 1996, Ms. Kim, a Seoulite by birth, settled in a city well known for its cultural heritage, Kyongju in North Kyongsang province. She had received many proposals from renowned fashion designers to work together in Seoul or Taegu, but she rejected them all. She said she strongly believes that creating the beauty of quilted clothes depends not on flashy techniques or equipment, but on the costumer's ability to cultivate his or her mind.

In the old days, Korean women spent a lot of time sewing, making or mending clothes for their parents-in-law, husbands and children. Ms. Kim asserted that such devotion is a basic requirement of expert quilting.

The meticulousness and concentration required to quilt well means that the artisan must cultivate patience. Ms. Kim has been trying to instill such qualities in her young apprentices. Jin Mi-sook, one of Kim's best students, echoes her teacher's thoughts: "It takes a lot of patience and training of the mind to be able to make quilted clothes that look natural and beautiful. Simply having good sewing skills or techniques is not enough."

It usually takes more than two months for a skilled person to make a quilted garment, because lines are stitched into the fabric just 3 millimeters apart. Some people use sewing machines to quilt cloth these days but Ms. Kim is a purist. Only clothes that are hand quilted using a fine 2-centimeter-long needle are precisely tailored enough to ensure comfort and fit, she said.

Ms. Kim is giving lessons on quilting to try and preserve and promote the tradition. She said that not only does quilting concentrate and clarify the mind, but you'll never fear the bite of winter again.

For more information, call 054-775-2631 (Korean only).

by Kim Jong-moon

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