Saetgolnai: Hardship, Toilsomeness and Our History
By Ahn So-hee, Tribune Reporter
Have you ever heard of Saetgolnai? Saetgolnai is the work of weaving Mumyeong, the traditional hand-woven cotton, or the exact task of being a cotton weaver. Actually, “Saetgol” refers to the township of Dasi in Naju city, South Jeolla Province and “Nai” refers to the traditional Korean cloth weaving process. As Satgolnai was designated as the 28th most Important Intangible Cultural Property of the Korean people in 1969, Naju became known for Mumyeong. The thread of Mumyeong, produced in Naju, is the thinnest in Korea.
At present, Noh Jin-nam is passing down the art of Saetgolnai. She learned the skill of Gilssam, the Korean traditional weaving process, from her mother-in-law, Kim Man-ae who was recognized as the first artisan of Saetgolnai in 1969. A long time ago, Korean women had to learn the skill of Gilssam and made clothes of Mumyeong which was used to dress their family or was exchanged for cereal crops. However, these days many people don’t seek clothes made of Mumyeong and nobody wants to learn the skill of Saetgolnai. She said, “Because people don’t want this work, I have no choice but to pass down to just my family. This work doesn’t give much money, but Saetgolnai is the ancestral heritage that we need to protect.” From old times, the Korean people have been called ‘the white-clad people’ because of white Mumyeong clothes which they wore. It has become a part of Korean people’s lives for a long time. As Mumyoung reflects the true essence of the Korean spirit, the Japanese colonial government prohibited weaving Mumyoeng in the period of Japanese Occupancy. Because the Japanese needed straw bags in order to send rice to Japan, they imposed that people make straw bags instead of Mumyeong. But people secretly made Mumyoeng because it was a daily necessity back then.
Mumyoung is made through a year long process. Firstly, the artisan plants cotton seeds in March to be harvested in August. Sun-dried cotton is separated from cotton and seed. Then the artisan rolls dried pure cotton to make a skein and spins a thread. Next, the artisan makes a fire and puts the threads over the fire, while keeping a suitable distance between the threads and the fire. Then the artisan puts glue on the thread. This process is called Bemegi. The last process is weaving the Mumyeong using a loom. It requires strenuous efforts. Very strong hands are needed to resist the heat from the fire and a strong back to resist the pains of crouching all-day long during Bemegi. “In the past, I weaved cloth on a Kerosene lamp. It was very difficult. Most of all, hunger was the hardest thing to bear during work.” she said.
She has made Mumyeong for about 60 years. “I don’t have a special skill for making Mumyeong. I have just been adept in this work for long time.” She seems to have pride in her work, but she worries about indifference of the young generation to Mumyeong. The Badi (88th Important Intangible Cultural Property), a part of the loom, is not produced any more because the last artisan of Badi passed away. If we continue to neglect Saetgolnai, it willalso fade away slowly like Badi. We should take more interest in need for preserving the treasures of our great history.