Textiles of South Korea

Hubby and I at Dongdaemun Market in Seoul, South Korea.

One of the objectives of my trip to South Korea was to explore the handmade textiles in the area.  I had unexpectedly more difficulty with this than I thought I would.  The first part of the trip we were in Busan and Gyeongju with friends just acclimatizing.  The second part of the trip I was traveling with men.  I counted myself lucky to convince them to go through textile museums, galleries, and shops with me at all.  Poor Hubby left one shop in a daze after seeing the framed goldwork for 450,000 KRW.  That’s roughly $450US for  a 12″ x 12″ piece of exquisite goldwork embroidery.  Worth every penny in my mind.  But I digress…

Our first textile stop was to Dongdaemun Market in Seoul to order silk for rug hooking and pick up burlap for samplers for my students.

To understand Dongdaemun Market you have to think of a large warehouse, three buildings of it, 5 or 6 floors of it, all fabric/yarn/craft vendors.  One whole building is fabric.  Each vendor has a space about 10’x 10′ to sell their product.  So, for the most part they just have small samples out.  You check the samples, order what you want, pay for it, and then come pick it up the next day when they bring it in for you.

Dongdaemun Market is one of the largest fabric markets in Asia, and I was thankful to have help getting through it.  I have a friend with contacts outside Seoul who were able to tell me exactly where to go.  I got in, ordered the silk, and was out in half an hour.  Our guide was amazed!  It was definitely a lot quicker with him to translate for me.

As we went through various museums I’d stop and take photos of textiles and textile related items.  I found some interesting artifacts at the National Folk Museum of Korea, an unscheduled stop we just happened across on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace.  Check out the old looms in the National Folk Museum of Korea.

Floor loom, National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul, South Korea.

Loom, National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul, South Korea.

Also the traditional dress of Korea.

Korean Traditional Dress.

We saw a lot of people walking around in traditional dress, especially women, because you have free access to key tourist sites if you wear traditional dress.  It was little weird seeing people of all nationalities in traditional Korean dress, but one got used to it quickly.  I opted to not go for traditional attire because of comfort and time constraints.  We were really moving through sites at the rate of 10 – 12 kms. per day.

One day was devoted exclusively to my request to see textiles.  We stopped first at the Embroidery Museum of Korea.  It was a disappointment.  It had piecework or patchwork samples in it, but no embroidery.  I was a bit mystified as to why the name.  There were a lot of very expensive books for sale.  The only one I thought worth purchasing actually did have embroidery photos in it and was selling for close to $150US.  We walked out and went onto our next stop…the Chojun Textile and Quilt Museum.

This stop did live up to its name!  It was a small place, but larger than the Embroidery Museum.  And it had proper displays that included embroidery.  Some lovely goldwork on display.  The quilts were not all made by Koreans or in Korea.  We were told that the exhibit is actually a partial display of a private collection amassed by a generous lady over the course of 40 years.  The lady at the museum was kind enough to let us take a few photos…without flash.

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After purchasing a sample of Korean piecework and some postcards, we headed off to Gallery 0001010 at the recommendation of the lady at the Textile and Quilt Museum.  She told us it was “in the basement” of Myeongdong Cathedral.  Hmm…Myeongdong Cathedral has no basement we could discover.  What it does have is an underground shopping mall nearby.  Sure enough we found Gallery 0001010 in this underground mall!

We were in luck!  Not only was the gallery there, but the quilt show was open, AND the artist, Lee Jae Woo, was there as well.  I had the opportunity to chat with her and her friend, and to show the guys some quilting.  It was a delight to meet her and her friend.  Unlike traditional Korean quilting these quilts were machine quilted.  Lee Jae Woo learned quilting in the USA.  Traditional piecework and quilting was done by hand.  Still, the small size of the quilt pieces and blocks just awed me.  Look at this one…three different levels of close up…

Hubby checking to make sure all the corners match!

Closer yet. Yes, those are smaller blocks even yet!

These small pieces were well under an inch square…more like a centimeter square. Amazing detail!

By the time we were finished Gallery 0001010 it was suppertime and we were ravenous.  We had a great bite to eat at a local restaurant and shopped Myeongdong Market before heading back to the hotel for the night.

We also popped into the Hansangsoo Embroidery Museum in Bukchon Hanok Village.  No photos were allowed and there was not much happening.  I understand you can arrange to take silk embroidery lessons there if you plan in advance.  I did not.  There were some nice embroideries in there, but they appeared to be mostly one particular artist’s work.

Other fibre things of interest?  The South Koreans excel at knotwork.  They create beautiful tassels and hang them from long strands of silk rope with elaborate knots made in them.  Check the sides of this painted panel hanging in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.  This is not a particularly elaborate one.  Our guide said it was actually quite easy to make.

If you feel so inclined there is a Knot Workshop in Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul where you can go and take a workshop in creating a basic knot.  It is best to book in advance though.  Interestingly enough, there are a lot of workshops and little classes one can take if they book ahead.  I simply did not have time to do them.

When I asked around about the lack of textiles Korean women commented they were too busy working from 8 AM to 10 PM to have time to do handwork.  Most Korean women with families are up at 5 or 6 AM to prepare for the day and don’t get to bed till 11 PM or midnight.  Most textile work was done by retired women, and women who could afford to do it.  However, while that may generally be the case, I do know some South Korean mothers who make time for handwork, and do an excellent job of it.  Our guide’s aunt hand painted and made beautiful fans for Hubby and I from scratch…after she finished her day job.

I was disappointed not to get to see the dye garden at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, or the dye workshop located in or near Bukchon Hanok Village.  I was just too tired.  Hubby and I both agreed we need to go back again someday and see more of South Korea.