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'Color indigo ... it's like flow of dream'

Rolls of cloth dyed indigo in the traditional Korean method hang like clouds at the foregrounds of dyeing expert Jeong Kwan-chae's training center in Naju, South Jeolla Province in this file photo. Jeong, the nation's Important Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 115, is the nation's top expert in traditional indigo dyeing. / Courtesy of Jeong Kwan-chae

Traditional indigo dye expert reaches out to community with his talent

By Kim Ji-soo

Jeong Kwan-chae, Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 115 and the nation's expert in traditional indigo dyeing poses in the yard of his training center in Naju, South Jeolla Province.
Last week, traditional dyeing expert Jeong Kwan-chae, 56, taught young students about the craft at the KINTEX exhibition hall in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, just northwest of Seoul. The event was organized with a government agency to have experts like Jeong donate talent.

"This color indigo can only be produced from the Polygonum indigo, unlike the colors red and yellow, which we can easily find from natural ingredients around us," said Jeong, as he demonstrated how the plant is turned into a dyeing material that produces colors ranging from bluish green to blackish blue with the help of lime and time. Jeong, recognized by the government as the nation's Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 115, was sharing his talents to the community.

Teaching is a familiar activity for Jeong, who is also a high-school art teacher at Yeongsan High School in his hometown of Naju, South Jeolla Province. This job has enabled him to continue performing traditional indigo dyeing, a craft that has been passed down for three generations in his family.

As he helps two girls soak a cotton cloth to make their first traditional dyeing product, Jeong was asked if he can wash off the colors from his hands, to which he responded "No, the nails just have to grow back."

The craft of traditional indigo dyeing starts in the spring. At this time, Jeong burns peels of oyster or cockle shells for 12 hours at 1,000 degrees or higher to produce the lime, which with its calcium carbonate acts as the mordant agent to turn the green initial colors into blue, Polygonum indigo planting also begins around March or April.

"The hardest part of the process is when I turn the indigo into a coloring material," Jeong said, "because usually, it's done when the weather is hot and the process is tricky," he said.

Indeed, he harvests the plants from July through August, or the dog days of summer. He puts the harvested Polygonum indigo in a large vessel filled with water for two to three days. Afterward, he takes out the plant from the vessel and mixes the resulting jade-colored water with lime, which together with the indicant element in the plant, changes the color of the water to indigo. The coloring material indigo does not dissolve in water and thus, sinks to the bottom; the water is poured out from the vessel to collect the indigo sediment and preserve it in a cool storage for later use. The indigo is then mixed with lye and boiled to transform it into alkali paint. The lye is necessary to make the indigo soluble.

He says mixing the coloring material indigo with the lye is the most critical part of the process.

"This is the stage where most fail, because people put in either too much or too little lye," said Jeong. He said he too got his formula right only after numerous trials.

But the work doesn't stop there. Before dyeing, the cloth has to be either washed or boiled to become rid of impurities. Then, the cloth is soaked in the indigo-and-lye mix for three to five minutes and aired or washed in cold water. Finally, after the cloth is dyed, it is washed in warm water and dried before use.

He said the color indigo has sentimental value for him and for Koreans in general.

"What comes to your mind when you see this color indigo?" he asked the reporter, who hesitated to answer. "It's the color of the sky, the sea, but when you look at it closely, it has a bit of red too," Jeong said. He said such hues evoke sentimental feelings. To him, the indigo dye produced the traditional way "is like a flow of a dream."

Traditional indigo dyeing began during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) and continued through the 1950s in Jeong's hometown of Naju. The practice of the craft halted during the Korean War (1950-1953), restarted in the 1970s and then flourished from the 1980s.
Traditional dyeing continued in Jeong's hometown. The Polygonum indigo was the only plant that survived the frequent flooding in Yeongsan River, thanks to some seeds Jeong received from Prof. Park Bok-gyu of Sungshin University. He started planting the seeds in 1978 when he was an art student in college.

He said his expertise and his job as a teacher has enabled him to make ends meet while pursuing his craft. He also has students who have succeeded in industrial and commercial industries, where people with traditional indigo dyeing skills are in demand.

"It's also called the ‘mother-in-law' color because cloth dyed in this color is used when preparing ‘hanbok' for mothers-in-law to be," said Jeong.

As the environment and health benefits of traditional indigo dyeing have become well known over the years, Jeong is looking into using the indigo dye material in the biomedical industry. The natural indigo material that is collected after mixing with the lye has the root of fungus that can be used for medicinal purposes.

But what he really wants to do is dye denim fabric through the traditional Korean method, to minimize pollution in the cities or towns that manufacture denim fabric. Clothes dyed the traditional method allows for more air, allowing for its wearer to remain fresh.

Jeong teaches the traditional Korean dyeing method to anyone who wants to succeed. The "training" center named after him and in Naju is open to the public for experiencing the traditional dyeing and for purchase naturally-died indigo (For those interested, the phone number is 061-332-5359). At the moment, he teaches about 20 students in partnership with the Cultural Heritage Administration, but teaches more in unofficial classes. For example, he teaches traditional dyeing to the general public at his demonstration house in Naju.

"I do this with a sense of mission," said Jeong. "I am passing on a traditional skill, with the hope that it will create a new culture," he said.


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