|Kwon Yeon-i works on her hemp weaving loom in a small room of her traditional house in Geumsori, Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.|
/ Korea Times photos by Choi Won-suk
Artisan preserves disappearing craft of hemp fabric weaving
By Chung Ah-young
ANDONG, North Gyeongsang Province — Kwon Yeon-i sweats heavily as she works on her hemp weaving loom in a small room of her traditional house in Geumsori, Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. She rapidly moves her foot on the treadle and the shuttle from left to right to "feed" the fibers on the loom to produce "andongpo," or hemp fabric.
Weaving traditional hemp fabric has always been an essential part of her life, in the same way that farming was to the village where she grew up.
"When I was a child, fabric was really rare. As communities were self-sufficient, we had to weave our own," Kwon said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Her village is renowned for producing high-quality hemp fabric since the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), during which it was used to make the costumes for "hwarang," or flowering knights, an elite group of male youth. During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), the fabric was used to make summer wear for commoners.
In Korea, hemp, or "sambe," was one of four popular traditional textile fibers, along with cotton, ramie and silk. But the tradition of making hemp fabric started disappearing in the 1950s. Today, only elderly weavers in a few rural regions practice the tradition.
Geumsori has sandy soil, which facilitates drainage and is therefore good for cultivating hemp.
Kwon, who has been weaving the fabric for more than 50 years, said she is one of the relatively younger weavers today, when most are in their 80s and 90s.
"There are only a few young people in my village because many have left for the cities. Only the elderly are left behind and continue to weave hemp fabric. I am 72 and younger than the other weavers in my village," she said.
Weaving used to be a typical activity in this village. Almost every household used to have a loom. Today, the number of weavers is only a third of what it used to be.
She said as the process of weaving hemp fabric is laborious and complicated, and demand for the fabric is on the decline, only skillful artisans have preserved the technique.
The preparation for weaving the fabric requires harvesting hemp, removing the leaves and steaming the stalks. Then, the outer layers of the stalks are peeled off and dried.
"In making a strand of hemp fiber, my body and hands are crucial tools. My fingertips and nails have become worn out, as I use them to split the fiber as finely as possible and roll them on my lap to connect the ends of the threads to one another," she said.
Kwon is proud of her production of high-quality hemp fabric, as it is unrivaled in terms of fineness and texture. "The hemp fabric from our village boasts beautiful shades and a soft texture. I love the resulting product," she said.
There are two types of Korean hemp fabric — "andongpo," which is produced in Andong and its adjacent areas, and "musam," which is produced in different regions throughout the nation but particularly in Boseong, South Jeolla Province.
Because of its durability and breathability, hemp fabric is used to make a wide range of clothing. It is popular for summer wear for farmers and the middle and lower classes, as well as for sanitary napkins. It has also been used to make mourning clothes.
"Nowadays, many Chinese products are replacing andongpo. We cannot make ends meet because we can't compete with Chinese manufacturers in terms of price," she said.
Kwon said as the tradition is on the verge of disappearing, she wants to pass her skills down to her daughters-in-law, who are living in downtown Andong.
"My skills are becoming rare even in this hemp-weaving village, as young people are leaving. I hope that my skills will be succeeded by those of my children's generation," she said.
Hemp-weaving receives less recognition than other crafts
Kwon has won more than 11 awards from the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition since 1995.
"Since I got married, I have committed myself to producing high-quality hemp fabric. But there are few experts, even in the state-organized contest, who can appreciate the quality of the fabric," she said.
The artisan explained that there are a slew of professors and scholars who have expertise in other crafts, such as making "hanbok," or traditional Korean clothes. But there are just a few who can appreciate the value of weaving hemp fabric, as it is regarded as simply making a kind of material rather than a craft.
"All the experienced and skillful experts are the elderly who are still producing hemp fabric here. I think they are the right persons to judge the quality. But only scholars and professors judge our products. It's a pity that our traditional skills are not recognized as much as those of other crafts," she said.
Making a traditional dress is wonderful work, but without excellent fabric, it would not be possible to create a great piece of textile artwork, Kwon said.
Who is Kwon Yeon-i?
Kwon Yeon-i was born in 1943 in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. She has been weaving hemp fabric for more than 50 years, since she was a teen. She has been living in Geumsori, Andong, since she got married.
Kwon has won more than 11 awards, including participation awards, from the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition since 1995.
She was named a Korea Traditional Skills Transmitter by the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Human Resources Development Service of Korea in 2010.
What is ‘Andongpo'?
"Andongpo' refers to hemp fabric produced in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. It boasts a finer and softer texture than hemp fabric produced in other regions. Andong is renowned for producing high-quality work since the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) when the fabric was used to make the costumes for "hwarang," or flowering knights, an elite group of male youth. During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), the fabric was used to make summer wear for commoners.
In Korea, hemp was one of four popular traditional textile fibers, along with cotton, ramie and silk. But the tradition of making hemp fabric started to disappear in the 1950s. Only the elderly in a few rural regions continue to practice the tradition.
Geumsori in Andong has sandy soil, which facilitates drainage and thus, is good for cultivating hemp.