Put the hemp in the sky. Grab the clouds and hang it up on the heddle shaft.
With a spindle made of nutmeg wood.
With a reed made of jujube wood.
Whirring, purring I weave.
Mama, mama, my mama.
What will you do with that fabric.
When my brother gets married?
We will make blue and green cloth.
‘The lifetime with the song of the loom: Kim Chom-sun,’
Koreana vol.12 no.2
Have you ever heard of “Dolsilnai”? “Dolsilnai” is the name for Sambe (traditional hand-woven hemp cloth) produced in Gokseong. It was designated by the government as the 32nd important intangible cultural heritage in 1970. “Dolsilnai” is derived from the name of a place, Gokseong, which is one of the counties in jeollanamdo. The Korean word, “Dolsil” indicates the old name of Seokgok myeon in Gokseong. The rest of the word, “Nai” means Gilssam, weaving by hand.
Chonnam Tribune went to Gokseong to find out about “Dolsilnai”. Dolsilnai pavilion displays the tools required to produce “Dolsilnai” and for weaving in general. At the pavilion, we met Yang Nam-suk, an important intangible cultural heritage candidate who continues the practice of “Dolsilnai”. She explained the hardships of producing “Dolsilnai”. Sambe is often referred to as a symbol of women’s lamentation. Long ago, most women made their family’s clothing themselves. Weaving cloth was one of their essential duties. So many women farmed during the daytime and wove at night. Before the weaving can begin, many other processes are involved in producing hemp such as spinning, drying, and so on. Ms. Yang explained that since a lot of time and effort were involved in producing the finished hemp garment women often joined together to ease their strenuous workload.
Very often the knees became bruised and callous when spinning hemp, as a woman held 2 strands of thread between them and rubbed the threads with her hands to link them into on strand.
In Gokseong, women have produced traditional fine-textured hemp cloth for a long time. The hemp cloth produced in Gokseong is famous for its fine and regular weave compared with hemp clothes produced in other countries. Therefore, “Dolsilnai” has become a synonym for fine hemp cloth. There are some other places which are also famous for hemp cloth: Gilju, Myoungcheon and Andong. The hemp cloth made in these places is different from “Dolsilnai” in that each is produced in its respective way and each of them contains their own unique properties.
The Process of Making “Dolsilnai”
Weaving was an essential task in every Korean household in the days when communities were for the most part self-sufficient. All women used weave even though the job was very hard.
Making hemp cloth is very complex and requires a lot of effort. Producing Dolsilnai properly includes eleven steps from making the threads from the hemp plants, to whitening them, to spinning them on a wheel, and weaving the threads into cloth using a loom. The following is a summary of the process.
First, you cut hemp plants, remove the leaves and steam the stalks in a cave made for that purpose. Second, shred the stalks into many pieces and remove their husks. Then tear the strands finely by using your finger nails. Make the strands into thread by rubbing them on your lap, connecting the ends. Spin the threads on a spinning-wheel to make them stronger. Next, re-steam the threads. Soak and clean them in water for two or three days. Steam them again in ash water made from burned rice stalks and bleach them by drying them in the sun. The next process is to cut the threads lengthwise (wrap threads) depending on the intended length of the cloth and the number of strands. Then wind the threads by fixing on end on the warp beam of a loom and tying the other to the shaft. Then apply starch to the warp beams’ side and the threads on it. Weave the cloth on the loom by crossing the shuttle filled with a spindle of thread. The cross thread is called the weft. Pull and push the treadle with your right foot to alternate the heddles of thread with the controlling thread.
While weaving, maintaining the proper moisture is important. If the hemp threads are too dry, it is too difficult to weave the cloth. If they are too moist, the cloth will rot. It is only after all these strenuous processes have been completed that you can see, Dolsilnai, hemp cloth of the highest grade.
The Origin of Sambe
For a long time, hemp fabric has been used to make clothes and bedclothes, etc., actually since Gojoseon, the ancient name for Korea. Hemp cloth wasn’t classified into, Mosi, ramie fabric and Sambe, hemp fabric until the Silla unification. Sambe and Mosi, the fabrics most preferred for summer clothing, aren’t very different considering both are made from the bark of plants – the ramie and hemp plant. However, they are different in that the strands of Mosi are finer than those of Sambe. Sambe is used for making summer clothes, single-layered quits, bet-tick and so on, while Mosi is preferred for making “Hanbok”, the traditional Korean clothing.
The Usefulness of Hemp Cloth, Sambe
There are many ways to avoid the scorching summer heat. We usually use an electric fan or an air conditioner. Another effective way also exists. Wear Sambe. It is ideal for summer clothing because it is airy, water resistant and durable. People who wear this clothing feel fresh in the hot weather. It also has anti-bacterial properties. While those of other fabrics are temporary, Sambe has a strong capacity for antibiosis. Even when you soak it in water for a long time, neither bacteria nor bad smells occur. In Korea, when someone dies, the rest of the family often put a Sambe shroud on the corpse.
Rarity of Traditional Handmade Cloth, Sambe
Sambe is well known for its excellence compared with hemp cloth produced in other countries such as Japan, China and India. Sambe has a high quality thanks to the careful efforts of Korean craftswomen. Unfortunately, with the passing of time, more and more of our traditions fade away, including making traditional hemp cloth, Sambe.
We had planned to meet “Kim Jeom-sun”, who has been designated as the holder of the 32nd important intangible cultural heritage, as already mentioned above, at her home in Juksan town but she is too old to be interviewed. That’s the reason we met “Yang Nam-suk”, who still practices the craft, instead. Few people work nowadays at producing Sambe. According to Nam-suk, this is because no young people want to learn the craft of Dolsilnai. The main reason is that people can’t earn enough money to make a living from it. So many people especially the young don’t weave anymore. Additionally, the pavilion we cisited rarely has visitors so it is almost always locked. Inside of it, the tools are too old for use. Ms. Yang said since there are so few people, that it isn’t managed properly.
To preserve our precious cultural heritage and tradition, it is high time for all of us to take interest in our own traditional cultures such as Dolsilnai. Even though making hemp cloth is not profitable, we have to preserve it by paying attention to our tradition.