Embroidery was the real reason for my trip to Korea. Delicate and tasteful, Korean embroidery is some of the most elegant in the world. It is said that in medieval times, one of the Korean rulers owed a debt to the Emperor of China and so as payment, the emperor demanded that the women most skilled in embroidery be gathered and sent to work at the Chinese court at Xian. With that, the debt was paid in full. And it was Korean embroiderers who brought sericulture and silk embroidery to the Japanese archipelago around 300 AD.
By the Choson period, Korean embroidery could be classified into two groups: Gung-su (royal court embroidery) and Min-su (folk embroidery). To supply the demands of royal court, Gung-su embroidery was produced in great variety to adorn large scale screens with grand images of pine trees and cranes, flowers and birds, and hundred-letter compositions featuring the symbols for longevity and happiness. Wooden furniture frequently had embroidered panels inset into cabinet doors, drawer facings and box lids. And the range of pouches is nothing short of amazing — incense pouches, writing brush pouches, spoon cases and a wide variety of women’s accessories.
The traditional dress of Korea is called the hanbok. For women, the basic hanbok features a high-waisted full skirt and a short jacket. An elaborate ceremonial version with an additional over-robe and headdress is shown at right, while a simpler yet beautifully elegant modern version of the hanbok is shown above. Both are richly embroidered.
Sadly (from my perspective), I could not find any second hand market for vintage hanbok. When these beautiful garments are worn out or out grown, they are simply recycled into gorgeous patchwork called pojagi. Traditionally these are used as dust covers or wrapping cloths, but now pojagi are highly valued by art collectors, who have frequently compared these textiles to compositions by European artists Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Two samples are shown below, but two samples can’t possibly do justice to the wide range of artistry that goes into these patchwork pieces.
The other form of Korean embroidery, Min-su was made for common people. Free from standardized rules, the works have a more whimsical naive quality and the bolder color schemes further add to its strength and charm. The introduction of woodblock printing for transferring designs allowed more rapid wide scale production of numerous small articles, even spools and thimbles were covered with small pieces of embroidered silk.
Shown below is a poster for a recent exhibition focused solely on traditional embroidered spools. Looking closely at the flat rectangular object in the lower left corner of the poster, you can see the coral silk thread wound between the yellow and crimson embroidered patches at either end of the spool.
In recent years, there has been greater interest in honoring Korea’s textile heritage. Several embroidery museums have been founded in Seoul. Indeed, Korean academics were the first to begin seriously investigating and documenting the histories of Asian embroideries. Dr. Yang Young Chung described the needle as a powerful tool that gave women the opportunity to improve their lives at a time when few opportunities existed for women. Using this tool, they enriched their lives. And as we encounter these remnants of their existence, our lives are also enriched.