Korean embroidery casts spell on Han Sang-soo

Master embroiderer Han Sang-soo, who is an Important Intangible Cultural Property, working on "Water, Moon Avalokitesvara" in this file photo.
/ Courtesy of Han Sang-soo

By Kim Ji-soo

It seemed befitting that an educational center for traditional arts and crafts be situated next to Seolleung, a king's tomb. The tomb houses the remains of the Joseon Kingdom's 9th ruler, King Seongjong, and his second wife Jeonghyeonwanghu.

Han Sang-soo, traditional Korean embroiderer was there Tuesday as a teacher overseeing students enrolled in an eight-week program.

But Han, 81, is the country's Important Intangible Cultural Property in Korean embroidery, known for her singular match of colors and almost modern sewing that makes her work seem alive.

"That's because we use a lot of inner stitching to portray the highs and lows," she explained in an interview at the center in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul.

Han said she wants to keep the interview short as she wants to concentrate on her future plans.

But once she starts talking, her passion and energy were evident; even as she sped through her 60 plus years as an embroiderer, the interview lasted for nearly two hours. What caught the eyes as she spoke were her pretty and long-nailed fingers, and her hands that were surprisingly soft.

"Needlework doesn't ruin your hands," said Han. "These nails are to help me arrange a line or a fold when I sew," said Han.

With those hands, Han, who has been a cultural property since 1984, has dedicated her life to Korean embroidery since she was 19. Asked to define Korean embroidery, "It's the art of dot, line and space," she said.

"We use 10 basic sewing methods, which have their spin-offs, to create the Korean embroidery works," Han said.

Then she quickly pulled up a collection of motifs on five A4 size pieces of paper that she created for a leading women's magazine the "Yeoseong Donga" in 1980. The colorful motifs and patterns included designs such as lotus flowers, boys and girls as well as more modern designs. Back in the ‘80s, embroidery was common to Korean women and was still taught in secondary schools.

After a loss of interest and the phasing out of these classes in schools and colleges, interest in Korean embroidery has recently picked up. Han can see it in the rise of the number of students.

To Han, Korean embroidery holds a "spell."

"It's a joy to do, but it also drives me to do better, to create bigger scale works," said Han. "I want to finish one work and then go on to produce yet a better one."

Her notable works include the recreation of the 7th-century "Tenjukoku Manala Drapery," a Buddhist painting and embroidery work whose base painting and overall direction of production were done by peoples of the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms; and testifies to Korean embroidery's level during the Three Kingdom era (57 B.C.-668). The original work resides at the Chuguji Temple in Japan while Han's recreation is in the National Palace Museum. The work was created to commemorate the Japanese Prince Shotoku in 622 by his consort Tachibana-no-Oiratsume and her court ladies. It was a work where Han focused on reproducing the textile, natural dying, the sewing methods and the patterns of the Three Kingdoms era, a pouring out of energy that makes it her favorite.

She has also won numerous awards in Korea for her works such as the "Jasugwaebul" for which she won the President's Award at a traditional craft arts competition.

People would think that she fell instantly in love with Korean embroidery but she said it was the case of talent finding her against the social context. Just as Korean embroidery was done by "women without names," or women of ancient Korea not allowed to hold jobs, she had other dreams initially.


Han, a native of Jeju Island, said she was good at school, leading her class in elementary school.

"I had sewn a design on a small pocket bag in 5th grade and it was posted on the back wall of the classroom for being the best," Han said.

Then, the Korean War broke out and she and her family fled to Busan in 1953. Amid the turmoil of war, there was nothing she could study; but she heard about the late Professor Cho Jeong-ho who was teaching embroidery in Busan. "So I went to that place and the teacher asked me to stay a few days," she said.

There, she learned from the professor and gradually honed her ability. As her skills improved in the 1970s, she was working heavily in sewing designs for the obis of Japanese kimonos.

"There was a big demand, and we hired women who came up to work in Seoul to earn school tuition for their brothers back home," said Han. During the early ‘70s, Korean embroidery was in full demand before Japanese manufacturers started to outsource to cheaper labor in China.

"I think if we had taken the opportunity back then to refocus on Korean embroidery used in the (Joseon) royal court, we would have had more traction," Han said.

In person, Han speaks with passion but also with erudition. As the interview progressed, she showed glimpses of the ups and downs she experienced in continuing on the tradition.

"As an embroiderer, I am proud. But people tend to not fully respect Korean embroidery, falsely thinking that it's for narrow-minded people. It's not. It's a work of scale," she said. "Also, people with bigger hearts should do embroidery. Because the work is so hard, people who do it think that they are the best. But they should know that everyone thinks that way," she said.


"I want to make my own brand, ‘Han Sang-soo.' A brand just like that of fashion designer Andre Kim," she said.

The idea is that once her name becomes a brand, it will create demand and more jobs for women in needlework. She feels obligated to bring those women that she worked with in the 1970s and jointly produce a great work.

"We need to continue to create greater works," she said.

Aside from her office at the Delivery Center in Samseong-dong, Han wants to re-open a museum in Gahoe-dong, northern Seoul where many of her works are stored. Personally, she has about 100 personal embroidery works and about 230 relics that she would like to exhibit.

She believes that the central and the Seoul city government should work to support people in traditional artistry, as local governments aggressively do for their artisans.

Han said she plans to make the suggestion to Mayor Park Won-soon, as the metropolitan government reportedly has plans to open a traditional crafts museum in central Seoul soon.

Her biggest future plan so far will be the third Korean Embroidery Contest that she plans to hold next April.

"We not only need greater works but also more talented embroiderers as well," she said.

"So much to do and so little time," she said.

Kim Ji-soo janee@koreatimes.co.kr

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