One hot afternoon, a one and a half bus journey took this reporter out beyond the overcrowded urban area, past peaceful and tranquil scenery, further on than Dolsan Bridge in Yeosu, to my destination, the art studio of craftswoman, Kim Young-ja. The easily accessible yellow earth and mustard leaves, the abundant sunshine, and the warm climate make this part of Jeollanamdo perfect for the naturally dyeing of cloth, in winter as well as summer. This once-vanishing craft is the forte of Kim Young-ja.
A welcoming smile and a glass of cold water on arrival at Kim Young-ja’s Korean fabric art studio named Haessal (Sunshine), refreshed me after my long time journey. She was very kind and seemed genuine. I felt at ease all through the interview with her. Her workplace with a breathtaking view of the sea seemed so natural. What is natural dyeing, anyway? Let’s travel to the world of natural dyeing as described by Kim Young-ja.
*Kim Youn-ja, a natural dyeing craftswoman, is the president of Sunfull, a Korean natural dyeing fabric art studio. She was awarded prizes at The Jeollanamdo Craft Exposition from 2001 to 2004, and won a prize at The National Craft Exposition in 2004. She also held a naturally-dyed fashion show in 2001 and exhibited Sunfull works under the title, ‘Spring, Spring and Spring-picnic’ in 2005.
Yesterday and Today of Natural Dyeing
In former years as society became more structured it also became more diverse and complicated, so socio-political classes developed. At that time, dyeing symbolized the status of a person’s class. It was also used as a religious symbol and an expression of sentiment, especially as an incantation for a person’s security. After artificial synthetic dyes developed, natural dyeing gradually began to vanish. Korea was no exception to this phenomenon. Natural dyeing almost disappeared as Koreans experienced much social upheaval, especially during the respective periods of Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 and the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
Nowadays, natural dyeing is making a rapid comeback, for various reasons. One of them is the ‘going green’ and ‘well-being’ concept. However, the biggest reason has to do with the benefits from natural dyeing: anti-fungal, deodorization and anti-allergic properties. Therefore, naturally-dyed products like traditional Korean clothes which can be worn casually by children and seniors and also by people suffering from skin diseases are more in demand these days. These are also aesthetically pleasing. Natural dyeing was traditionally considered as a cultural asset, but it is now more seen for its medicinal effects that may help them cure diseases as well as improve our lives.
About Natural Dyes
Natural dyes are classified as vegetal, animal or mineral. Vegetal dyes are the most frequently used of these, and are divided into five colors; black, white, red, blue, and yellow. These colors reflect the yin-yang philosophy and the Five Elements; metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Mineral dyes are remarkable due to their extraction method. Unlike any other dyes, these are turned from sand into the colors in fine fabrics. Water heated to about 60 or 70 centigrade and a mordant are necessary for making natural dyes. The mordant is mainly made from alum, lime powder or rust from a ship’s bottom. As a decisive ingredient, the mordant helps the process of coloration.
Good Natural dyes must satisfy certain conditions. People should not be able to buy them easily and cheaply. Natural dyes should be resistant to heat, sunlight and washing. Natural dyes are graded on a scale of 1 to 5 according to the degree of coloring. People usually check the coloring degree by washing dyed fabrics. A natural dye graded four or above could be suitable as a dye. The fifth grade is the highest dye. Even if natural dyes look like trivial or ordinary, they have gone through various processes to achieve their uniqueness. The work to extract dyes from natural resources is very difficult and takes a long time. Therefore, natural dyes are the result of devotion and dedication.
Charm of Natural Dyeing
Naturally-dyed fabric has many charms. It requires the sunlight, the wind and our care. Through it, we can make friends with nature. It causes us to feel friendly and comfortable with nature. Various natural colors are brought into our lives. It is possible that all of nature can be a source of natural dyes. We may have not yet discovered beautiful colors in the earth.
Summer is especially good for natural dyeing because of the large quantity of sunlight. Tannin, the main ingredient of persimmon, is burn by the sun. As a result, the color is deeper than before. To get a preferred color we should repeat the process again and again. However, it is believed that after nine times of dyeing, the color won’t change anymore. This shows the intelligence of our ancestors. They believed that nine times of dyeing was the maximum, as we can find in the old saying, Goojeunggoopo (The steam and dry work is repeated nine times). As this word means, natural dyeing is “the being from the beginning-the process in becoming-and the end result.”
Natural Dyeing as a Cultural Good
Today in the era of health consciousness’, natural dyeing is rapidly becoming more popular. Naturally dyed products are very diverse; clothing, bedding, daily necessities, tea ceremony articles and so on. Popular items which customers prefer often change. Kim Young-ja said, “Among these goods, there is a great demand for underwear. Also in the past people liked the blue color of indigo plants or brown color of persimmon, but now they prefer ocher to other colors. Colors preference varies with time.” What are the difficulties in making these goods?
First, naturally-dyed clothes have to be more durable than, “normal” clothes because of sweat. As most of this work was done manually not as many goods as one wanted could be produced, so while demand remained high, supply was limited. “These goods could be produced in large quantities. But there is a difference between handcrafted and machine production in terms of the degree of elaborateness,” she said. Based on this, we can tell that natural dyeing is not easy and requires a spirit of craftmanship.
Then how do we properly maintain dyed goods? When you wash them, you have to pay extra attention. For example, you have to wash dyed material by hand in cold water with neutral detergent, because its colors can fade due to the acidity or alkalinity of a cleaning agent.
“The change in color due to washing, sunlight and sweat represents the passage of time” said Young-ja, adding, “I think that a culture is like flowers in cities. You neglect them and they die. One of the better examples is natural dyeing. To make it flourish, it is necessary to take interest in natural dyeing. Active government support is also important.”
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Some natural dyeing is difficult for ordinary people to do, for e.g. indigo plant dyeing. However, certain natural dyes can be easily obtained around us out of ocher, onion, balsamine and so on. This makes the process easier and more enjoyable. We enjoy dye from ocher because it is available around us, So, let’s go.
As already mentioned above, all of nature could be a source for natural dyes. We may have not yet discovered beautiful colors in the earth. Natural dyeing is work where various natural colors are brought into our lives. It makes us feel friendly and comfortable with nature. In short, natural dyeing is the passage that links yesterday and today, and man and nature.
1. Binding clothes with tread. >> 1. Then, soaking the clothes. >> 3. Dyeing with ocher. If this is matured for about three years, it makes a fine dye. >> 4. After dyeing, ash many times. >> 5. Dyed clothes drying in the sun.