|Kim Yoon-sun creates various items from traditional thimbles to modern products such as handbags and accessories in her studio in Anguk-dong, central Seoul. Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul|
By Chung Ah-young
"Saeksil nubi," which refers to traditional Korean quilted items made with "hanji" (traditional Korean mulberry paper) and colorful threads, were believed to have been developed out of necessity by commoners, who wanted more durable daily items. Thus, such items looked simple and very practical. Saeksil nubi quilting was widely used to make cases for a wide range of objects, from tobacco pouches to spectacle cases and "golmu" or thimbles, particularly during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Kim Yoon-sun, a saeksil nubi artisan who has pioneered the revival of this traditional quilting for more than 30 years, holds a special memory of her grandfather's saeksil nubi tobacco pouch. The pouch, which has been handed down from generation to generation, symbolizes the virtues of this art — useful and beautiful. The pouch is still in good condition despite its age.
"I was in my 20s when I first saw my grandfather's pouch, which he used to keep tobacco powder. The pouch was made by my great grandmother. Such a case is hardly seen today," Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Out of curiosity, she tried to make one just like it and soon after, in 1984, became inspired to pursue quilting full time.
"I still cherish my grandfather's pouch," she said.
Kim learned more about the traditional craft, which used hanji in between the two sheets of cotton fabric.
In ancient times, "nubi" usually referred to fabric quilted with cotton wool to keep objects warm. In contrast, saeksil nubi refers to fabric quilted with hanji scraps for durability and to save resources.
Although saeksil nubi has a subtle and unique beauty, no one has attempted to revive the crafting until today. Kim took the task upon herself, researching artifacts and historical documents.
"Fabric quilted with cotton wool is well-known, but saeksil nubi, which uses hanji, are not as known. I had no teacher. I studied and revived saeksil nubi quilting by myself," she said.
Most saeksil nubi look crafty rather than flamboyant because in ancient times, resources were limited. They were supposed to be durable and useful, she explained.
"Saeksil nubi look simple but the process for making them is not," she said.
The quilting requires sophisticated knowledge of plaiting the scraps of hanji that are 1 or 2 centimeters wide into ones 1 to 3 millimeters, using them to fill the space between two sheets of fabric and then stitching around them at 0.2 to 3 millimeter intervals.
"From the start, it is like the process of weaving fabric. Only when the entire fabric is quilted will we be able to start making something. Embroidery and other sewing techniques are done with partial patterns, but we should quilt the entire fabric even though we use only a part of the fabric," she said.
Traditional quilting can be found in other countries, quilting using hanji strings as filling between two sheets of fabric is rare. The art cannot be done by sewing machines.
The quilting was widely used during the Joseon Kingdom but began disappearing at the dawn of modernization, as saeksil nubi were no longer used and the handmade process began to be considered laborious.
From functional items to works of art
Kim explained that using hanji is a novel idea because paper effectively protects items against moisture and helps them retain their shape. Items quilted with hanji protect substances and objects such as tobacco powder and needles from moisture.
"It is a very scientific craft. We can apply it to many things in modern times," she said.
Kim said the simple geometric patterns of saeksil nubi appeal to modern people. However, she has diversified the quilting patterns from simple geometric patterns to more complicated ones, such as flowers.
"When I introduced my artwork in Japan for a quilt exhibition a few years ago, many Japanese, who have their own strong quilt tradition, liked my work. It was then that I discovered the great potential of this craft," she said.
She uses mostly cotton fabric but now is attempting to use other fabrics, particularly silk and ramie, to make various quilted items.
"I hope that this tradition, which once disappeared, would be appreciated once by modern people. To that end, I need to modernize the usage and function of quilted items," she said.
Kim has created saeksil nubi brooches, handbags and interior items.
"I think tradition should be reinterpreted for modern times. If tradition stays in the past, it cannot be handed down to new generations. To keep the tradition alive, it should change constantly," she said.
In the past, saeksil nubi were crafted for function, but now, they should be created as artworks, Kim said.
The quilted works possess a subtle beauty with their embossed surfaces. The artisan has created 400 to 500 pieces of such works, including replicas of artifacts.
She said although she has made these items, she doesn't own them. "Sometime in the future, maybe when I can't create the artworks anymore, I might donate them to a museum. Until that time, what I have to do is just keep creating saeksil nubi," she said.
Who is Kim Yoon-sun?
For more than 30 years, Kim Yoon-sun has devoted herself to creating "saeksil nubi" (traditional Korean quilts made with "hanji" and colorful threads). She began learning how to quilt in 1984, inspired by her grandfather's tobacco pouch, which has been handed down from generation to generation.
She is one of the few artisans in the nation who can create these traditional quilted fabric artworks, as saeksil nubi quilting was almost forgotten in modern times.
She won a prize from the Cultural Heritage Foundation president at the Korea Traditional Craft Arts Contest in 1997 for her recreation of her grandfather's tobacco pouch.
She held her first solo exhibition in 1998. Kim participated in the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival at the Tokyo Dome in 2003.
She teaches people who want to learn how to make saeksil nubi at classes organized by the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation at the Korea Cultural House.
Kim has modernized the scope of the traditional craftworks from just traditional pouches to modern items such as handbags and accessories.
She currently runs her studio, Saeksil Nubi, in Anguk-dong, central Seoul.
What is ‘saeksil nubi'?
"Nubi" usually refers to fabric quilted with cotton wool to keep objects warm. In contrast, "saeksil nubi" refers to fabric quilted with scraps of "hanji" or traditional Korean mulberry paper using colorful threads. Saeksil nubi quilting was developed in ancient time to create quilted items while saving on resources.
The term "saeksil nubi" began to be used in 1998 by Yoo Hee-kyung, then the director of the Costume Culture Association and a professor at Ewha Womans University.
Making saeksil nubi requires sophisticated knowledge of plaiting scraps of hanji that are 1 or 2 centimeters wide into ones that are 1 to 3 millimeters wide, using them to fill the space between two sheets of fabric and then stitching around them at 0.2 to 3 millimeter intervals.
The hand-stitched quilted fabric filled with hanji strings are designed to help keep objects durable and in shape.
Although the quilting was created in ancient times out of necessity, it has been revived and adapted to modern aesthetic and functionality.