Not sew simple

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Not sew simple

Traditional embroidery has long been loved and much in demand, yet mass production has never been possible. After all, it takes one stitch at a time.

"Embroidery is the epitome of devotion and beauty," says Yoo Hee-soon, 46, owner of Seoul's Go-dang Traditional Embroidery Shop. "It's an effort that requires painstaking care and aesthetic mastery. In order to create a high quality piece of work, I must spend hours and hours laboring with needles and thread."

Go-dang is actually a small, two-bedroom apartment that serves as Ms. Yoo's workshop and living quarters. In the main room, stacks of satin thread and silk cloths and displays of embroidery works such as pillowcases, ornament pockets and norigae (women's pendant trinkets) fill the bureaus and shelves. Here, two women sit across from each other on the heated floor, in front of the tambour (embroidery hoop), sewing patiently. Ms. Yoo is working on an embroidered copy of a traditional Korean painting of a lotus flower near a pond while her disciple, Kim Myeong-suk, 39, labors on a souvenir piece.

Ms. Yoo shows how she first drew her design with a pen on an oil paper, then attached it over the silk canvas where she overwrote the designs. She then explains how she picked the color of the silk and satin threads to match the original.

"Unlike Western-style embroidery, traditional embroidery requires use of both hands," Ms. Yoo says. She uses her right hand to hold the needle on the surface, while using the left to pull it down under the tambour. Her hands are deft and quick, and she switches among three or four needles, all with different color threads. "To make the thread patterns solid, a single stitch must not be over 1.2 centimeters," she explains. "For the right kind of color arrangement, you also need a keen aesthetic sense."

With her neatly braided hair put up in a bun and hanbok made from ramie fabric, Ms. Yoo, a traditional embroidery seamstress who has been chosen as one of Korea's finest craftsmen of the year, looks like a woman from a Joseon period painting. But unlike the calm, reticent and genteel presence of a traditional woman of the era, she is animated, verbose and jolly.

Her apprentice, Ms. Kim, sits in a corner quietly and assiduously going to work on a decoration. Ms. Kim is disabled, unable to use her legs freely, and has been with her seonsaengnim (teacher/master) for five years. "I still feel I have so much to learn from her," says Ms. Kim, who assists Ms. Yoo with sundry activities. "This is not as easy as it looks," she adds. "It's physically tiring, but I do it because it suits my temperament."

Ms. Yoo lives alone in her 63-square-meter residence-cum-workshop, while her student comes to work with her from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The joint dining and kitchen area is crammed with books, magazines with titles such as "Imperial Arts of China" and "Afghan Embroidery," and a long row of awards and prizes are displayed, while the walls are adorned with framed embroidery works done by the artist. Her works are quite impressive, with intricate designs and weavings based on traditional patterns seen in museums and monuments, not to mention interesting color combinations. "People tell me I'm good with colors," Mr. Yoo says candidly. "I'm known for mixing and harmonizing colors well."

She takes out her most recent work, which went on tour in Japan, an embroidery piece made from her long hair. "There are relics from the Goryeo period which show that our ancestors used hair for embroidery purposes," she says. The embroidery is modeled after a pattern of heavenly figures with musical instruments engraved on a large bell in Sangwon Temple in Gangwon province. "This may appear easy to make theoretically, but when you actually work on it, it takes an extreme amount of patience and skill because hair is very slippery, as opposed to ordinary thread," she says, and then quickly adds, "not to mention time." A long-time customer at the shop says, "She does not engage in commercial work. Rather, she is a true artist in her own right, striving to create a unique piece."

Ms. Yoo says that embroidery brings her "peace of mind," a sense of serenity and comfort. On an average day, she spends nearly 15 hours working on her designs and sewing with great care, and rarely speaks when working. "Many people have this misconception that those with manual dexterity can make good embroidery work," she says. "In truth, you also need a good dose of imagination."

Yoo Hee-soon was born in Yaesan, a city in South Chungcheong province, the youngest daughter of a traditional herbal medicine doctor and a mother from a yangban, or noble, family in the district. "We were not well off because when I was growing up during the '60s and '70s, Western medicine came into the country and you couldn't make a lot of money on herbs," she says.

Ms. Yoo was profoundly influenced by her maternal grandmother, who possessed great talent in embroidery. However, her grandmother did not approve of her young granddaughter taking interest in the hobby because, as she reminded her an old Korean saying, "If a woman is a good with her hands, she will lead a hapless life."

But Ms. Yoo showed a natural flair for needlework and for the arts, for which she won several painting and craftwork competitions during her school years. "My former classmates all remember me as the girl who was good at art," Ms. Yoo beams. Then in 1969, her father died and the family moved to Gangwon province and later to Seoul.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Yoo could not afford to attend college, so she spent her days learning Oriental macrame (knotwork) and embroidery as a hobby. She decided to be a full-time embroidery seamstress by becoming an apprentice of Kim Tae-suk, a former president of the Korean Embroidery Association. For four years, Ms. Yoo worked more than 12 hours a day learning from and working for the embroidery master as a cultural student. In 1981, Ms. Yoo became the apprentice of Han Sang-su, an embroiderer who has been labeled by the government Intangible Cultural Asset No. 80.

Since 1983, Ms. Yoo has won 14 embroidery and craft competitions, at the local and national level. Many of her works have been displayed at exhibition halls and museums around the country. She even toured Japan in 1993 as part of the "Korea Traditional Art Exhibition."

In 1986, Ms. Yoo opened her shop Godang, meaning "old home" in Korean, and started to sell her works to art galleries and embroidery collectors. But for Ms. Yoo, embroidery was not a means to a living, but a lifestyle. "I barely made a living selling my work. Even now, most of my income comes from lecturing at cultural centers and universities," she says. Even a single embroidered thimble takes two full 12-hour days. To create an embroidery on a set of folding screens takes up to six months. Dyeing materials such as silk and thread is also done by hand at home by Ms. Yoo.

"She is stubborn when it comes to doing exactly what our forefathers did when making embroidery," says Heo Dong-wha, director of the Korea Embroidery Museum. "Sometimes it seems like she's walking a lonely path."

Ms. Yoo laments that many embroidery works nowadays are farmed out to Chinese seamstresses just to save money.

Finally, in 1987, Ms. Yoo entered college, enrolling in Korea National Open University. There she took courses in Buddhist art at Dongguk University. An avid traveler, Ms. Yoo spent the late 1980s and 1990s traveling all over the country, visiting historical monuments and cultural heritage sites in order to "be inspired by our nation's wonderful traditional culture," she says. "There's not a historic locale I've not visited at one time or another."

Ms. Yoo also felt a certain national spirit that came upon her when she would look at old temples and relics, and much of her work has been inspired by ancient artifacts.

To Ms. Yoo, becoming a traditional embroidery seamstress meant carrying out the traditions of her ancestors and preserving the ancient craft that distinguishes the peninsula's culture. "You have no idea how patriotic I am," she says. "I have a strong sense of national pride in me. I believe my task is to retain and transfer the skills of traditional embroidery."

For that she has a full-time disciple like Ms. Kim, students who learn from her regularly, as well as five or six foreign students. Asked if she speaks good English to her foreign students, she laughs heartily. "You don't need English skills to teach students," she says. "Learning embroidery can be done by feel and gestures."

Ms. Yoo plans to hold a solo exhibition of her private collections in the next two or three years. For that she will need to dig up old works she has kept in her bureau. "You know, what manufacturers call inventory are priceless artifacts for me."

by Choi Jie-ho

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