A dyeing technique finding new lifeOn a sunny summer day, in a remote farm in Hyangdong-dong, Goyang, eight people started boiling arrowroot in a large canister and stirring it with a wooden spoon.
It wasn’t a cooking class they were taking. These people, who were enrolled in an adult education class on traditional crafts, came to the distant farm village last month to learn how to dye clothes with natural pigments .
The students from Siheung, most of them homemakers, found out that the old way of dyeing fabric requires a lot more than just mixing chemical colors together. Sweat drenched their clothes as they worked with hot water and a portable furnace.
After hours of boiling, they poured the water through a screen and into a large plastic container. Waiting until the water cooled down, they put in silk and ramie cloths to soak in the container.
Natural dyeing is making a comeback, according to Hong Sun-pyo, 45, who was giving instructions to a small group of women and their children.
An artist with Knot & Natural Dyeing, Mr. Hong has been holding special teaching sessions like this for several years near his farm. On this particular day, Mr. Hong was teaching his class about the use of arrowroot and yellow earth in natural dyes. Arrowroot is used to create light green hues and yellow earth for brown.
“Natural dyeing has been booming for the last two or three years,” Mr. Hong said. “As society depends more on machines and traditions are forgotten because of industrialization, people start craving for something old, something closer to nature.”
Also, unlike chemical pigments, Mr. Hong added, the natural dyes do not cause allergic reactions.
Ten years ago, Mr. Hong decided to become a natural dyeing artist as a way to continue the traditions to which his mother was dedicated.
“I majored in arts in college and was always interested in colors,” Mr. Hong said. “I often helped my mother in dyeing using indigo plants. One day, I saw fabrics dyed with red, blue and yellow as they dried on a wire, swinging in the breeze. It was then I fell in love with natural dyeing.”
Mr. Hong’s mother, Cho Il-soon, 69, is an expert in traditional dyeing and making knots from yarns and threads to produce traditional pendants or other personal ornaments. She brought indigo plant seeds from Japan in the 1970s after industrialization in the textile industry made the plants extinct in Korea.
Mr. Hong not only cultivates the indigo plants on his farm in Goyang, but he also extracts the pigment from the plants and ferments it in large jars.
“I feel most content when I reap a good harvest of indigo plants of my own sowing and see how the color of naturally dyed cloths turns out beautifully,” Mr. Hong said.
Using these plants is considered by far the most difficult and expensive dyeing method because it is not only difficult to grow the plants, which are easily choked by weeds, but it also requires time-consuming processes, including fermentation.
Nonetheless, the method is also the most popular because of the beauty of the resulting indigo blue. When fabrics are dyed with pigments produced from indigo plants, the colors are oxidized to show darker, more bluish tones.
Other materials used in natural dyeing include chestnuts, mugwort, gardenia plants, balsam and gallnut.
Compared to modern techniques, natural dyeing is more flexible and requires more intuition, Mr. Hong said.
“There is no right way in natural dyeing,” he told the students. “You might not get the color you want or the color is a little lighter or darker than you expected, but there is no such thing as a failure in natural dyeing.”
As Mr. Hong spoke, Park Eun-hwa, who teaches the textile craft class at Janghyun primary school in Siheung for adults, and her students soaked cloths in a plastic container filled with arrowroot-boiled water for varying amounts of time.
“After making hanbok traditional clothes and linens with silk and ramie, I wanted to use naturally dyed fabrics,” Ms. Park said. “When I work on crafts for exhibitions, I only use these kind of fabrics.” She said some people can recognize natural and chemical hues just by looking at them.
Baek In-hwa, one of Ms. Park’s students, said she became interested in plant-based dyes through her needlework. “I tried to learn natural dyeing through books and television roughly, but when I tried to do it, it didn’t work well,” she said.
After soaking the cloths in the arrowroot water for hours, Ms. Park and her students tried color-fixing by means of a mordant. Then, the clothes were rinsed with water and hung on a line outside.
When using plant dyes, it takes at least half a day of hard labor, most of which occurs outdoors. But the scorching sun and the oppressive heat and humidity did not seem to lessen the enthusiasm. The students brought their children along, as well as picnic food and a large watermelon, which they finished quickly.
“When we work on natural dyeing, we take some time cooking and eating food and enjoying the outdoors,” Ms. Park said.
The silk fabrics dyed with arrowroots and yellow earth will be used to make women’s hanbok. Smaller pieces of fabrics colored with indigo plants were going to be scarves, which are often seen in traditional craft stores in Insa-dong, Seoul.
For Ms. Park, the whole process was about more than the clothes.
“One of the things that I personally treasure most is a silk sky-blue scarf dyed with indigo plants, which I often wear in spring,” Ms. Park said. “This is grueling work, but at the end of the day, when I see the inimitable colors of dyed fabrics hanging on the wire, it is just fascinating and washes away my fatigue.”
by Limb Jae-un
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