The Past and Present of Korean Embroidery

Sookmyung Women’s University Museum

Embroidery Culture of Korea

The Past and Present of Korean Embroidery
Embroidery is a field of the arts that has been made and used in our daily lives from a long time ago. The patterns and colors that have been materialized through embroidery elevate our daily lives aesthetically and add abundancy. In each and every relic introduced in this exhibition, such embroidery culture of Korea can be traced. The exhibition introduces Hyungbae (Insignia) and Husu, Court embroidery, Practical embroidery, Embroidered folding screen, Modern and contemporary embroidery in order and the history of Korean embroidery as well as the sincerity, hope and beauty that it embraces shall be observed.  
Insignia Badges
Hyungbae refers to an insignia, or a mark, embroidered on the chest and back of a clothing to indicate the wearer’s rank. Civil officers were designated by bird patterns and military officers by four-legged animals. Following the reign of King Yeongjo, a distinct insignia system of Korea was established. From then on, insignia became developed with a sense of national identity using techniques and designs differing from those of China, and they became developed as a form of art with a unique beauty, even among embroideries.

With the expression of a painting-like egret and brief but beautiful background, this is presumed to be the insignia of early Joseon period.

Worn by King Gojong's uncle Heungwan-gun, this one show the harmonious arrangement of clouds, double cranes, rocks and grass. The whole insignia us embroidered in couched gold threads, but the heads of cranes are embroidered in red seed stitches.

Insignia with a tiger design was worn by low-ranking military officers. The tiger is expressed like a caricature, with bamboo leaves and rocks arranged at the bottom. This design is atypical as an insignia with the background picture in a folk tale style.

In Buddhism, the lion is considered a magical animal that upholds the Buddha dharma and the truth, and symbolizes authority and dignity. The body of the lion was embroidered in blue thread, with a furry tail that appears rolled up. Its curly mane was embroidered in gold couching stitch.

Ornamental Back Hanging of Offiial Robe (Husu)
Husu was placed over myeonbok (crown and royal robe) worn by the king and jobok (court robe) and jebok (robe worn to rites) worn by the court officials during major national events, and it was hung down below the waist. As for the designs of husu, aside from the crane, unbo (clouds and treasures), dangcho (rinceau), manhak, peony and plum patterns were embroidered. The embroidery techniques used are deemed exceptional, as one of the finest embroideries seen among costumes, and the colors are exquisite.

Gyeongguk Daejeon (Great Code of National Governance)』, which was completed during King Seongjong’s reign over Joseon, there was a provision to “differentiate the embroidered pattern and ring according to the official grade of the subjects,” and to be more specific, a cloud and crane design with a gold ring was designated for those of 1-pum and 2-pum, an eagle design with a silver ring for those of 3-pum, a magpie design with a silver ring for those of 3-pum, and a crane design with a copper ring for those of 7 to 9-pum. Over time, however, these principles were not followed, and the embroidered crane design became a standard for all the official grades.

Court Embroidery
Court embroidery called gungsu in Korean refers to the embroidery works made in the royal court. In Joseon, there was Subang (lit. Embroidery Department) inside the royal court that specialized in the production of embroidery works. All of the court embroidery works that have been passed on to this day are from the Joseon period, and most of them were produced between the mid- and late Joseon dynasty.

In the Joseon period, the phoenix, along with the dragon, was frequently used as a symbol of the authority of the royal court. The queen was compared to the phoenix, and wore an insignia depicting the phoenix at times.

The embroidered chest is said to have been produced for the garye (wedding) of Queen Sunwon, who was the wife of Sunjo, the 23rd king of the Joseon dynasty. The ten traditional symbols of longevity were embroidered on the door, and on the lower part of the door, lotus flower and mandarin duck designs were embroidered so as to wish for the couple to be happy and bear many children.

Practical embroidery
Practical embroidery refers to the embroidery works made by the general public, and it is called minsu in Korean to distinguish it from gungsu or the royal embroidery. The embroidered works that have been preserved to this day are mostly from after the mid-Joseon dynasty. The women of Joseon embroidered various designs for their husbands and children, based on their wishes for them, on pouches, pendants, spoon cases, pillow ends, key holders, spectacles cases, ironing boards, thimbles, baby’s hats for winter, coat strings and so on. Embroidery skills were considered one of the must-have virtues of women in the Joseon period. Also, embroidery was a way for the women of Joseon to express and unleash their artistic sensibility, while living under the strict rules of Confucianism.

This is a ceremonial attire worn by a baby boy on his first birthday. The black collar was embroidered with a zigzag pattern, while the belt area was embroidered with floral patterns as well as auspicious signs and cranes.

This is a hat that was used by young girls born into an upper-class family in the Joseon Dynasty. Designs symbolizing longevity, health and happiness were embroidered on silk fabric.

A pair of fish mean conjugal harmony and fecundity. In line with the ancient phrase, Eoyagyongmun (the fish jumps over the dragon gate), images of a fish transforming into a dragon were also used to wish for a person to pass the national examination for a government post.

The lotus flowers grow in turbid water and mud, but they always remain clean without being dirtied by their surroundings. This is why it has become a symbol of Buddhism. Also alluding to the simultaneous growth and development of lotus flowers and their fruits, lotus flowers and seeds were depicted in combination as decorations to mean “to bear children soon.”

The birds plucking seeds from lotuses were a common symbol of fertility

Pouches were used by men and women of all ages, regardless of their class. Pouches were made of silk or cotton. Knots were made in the shape of a butterfly, bee, dragonfly or plum, and the main pattern was a symbol of wealth or a symbol of longevity.

An embroidery pattern is an embroidery template created by drawing a certain shape on a piece of paper or cloth. As for this particular embroidery pattern, ink lines were drawn on jangji (a type of traditional Korean paper). There are embroidery patterns depicting diverse auspicious signs on pouches and spoon cases and various other designs such as flowers, birds and ten traditional symbols of longevity.

This is the wrapper for the box in which a bridegroom sends the wedding jewelry to a bride. The wrapper is embroidered with auspicious letters such as longevity, wealth, and sons; floral patterns; a pair of phoenixes, all of which are the yearnings for a happy marriage.

This is a wrapping cloth that was used to wrapping the wooden wild geese that are taken by the husband’s side of the family after a wedding ceremony. The string on each of the four corners has a flowering plant design embroidered on it.

Embroidered Folding Screen
A folding screen was used inside a room to block winds, or to conceal a space, or for decorative purposes. In the Joseon period, living in extravagance was prohibited in accordance with the Confucian principles, and thus splendidly embroidered folding screens that drew admiration were exclusively reserved for the upper class such as noble families and the royal family. Folding screens made in Subang for enjoyment by the women of the royal court, or for decorative and admiration purposes demonstrate the quintessence of court embroidery. Auspicious designs were typically used and such included sipjangsaengdo (ten traditional symbols of longevity), hwajodo (birds and flowers), baeksubaekbodo (symbols of life and fortune), and jongjeongdo (ancient patterns used on metalware and dishware), which were used to wish for longevity and good fortune.People outside the royal court also made embroidered folding screens to be presented to the royal court or supplied to the upper-class families.

These are the pictures of flowers and insects embroidered by Mme. Shin Sa-im-dang (申師任當,1504-1551) who is the poetess-calligrapher-painter of the Joseon Dynasty. Also embroidered are the peony for wealth, and stones for longevity. Painted are butterflies representing happy home and family. Four panels were done by Shin, while the other two were produced by Hyh Baek-ryeon(許百練,1891-1977) along with her description words.

Various kinds of bronze bells and kettles of the ancient times are transfigured into decorative patterns. The screens were used in the bedrooms or the studies of noble people. Especially since 1945 they became favorite ones of the high-class women. These patterns were frequently used as the materials for embroidery of folding screens. Golden embroidery of figure and Chinese characters on the black woven silk creates noble dignity.

Anju embroidery was done by males in Anju area. They made great works to be dedicated to kings. At the corner of the folding screen are embroidered with the names of a manufacturing place and the embroiderer. This was made by an embroiderer, Ann Jae-min, in Daedonggang River area.

The goose symbolizes conjugal connection, and is regarded to be a bird that foretells the arrival of autumn and a messenger of news. In paintings and embroidered works, geese and reeds are depicted together to mean peaceful seniorhood as the reeds (ro, 蘆) means seniorhood (no, 老) and the goose (an, 雁) is homonymous with peace or comfort (an, 安).

Modern and contemporary embroidery 
Modern and contemporary embroidery underwent changes during the period of enlightenment due to the influence from Western culture and Japanese embroidery. With the establishment of girls’ schools, embroidery became an official subject, and the embroidery techniques were better compiled and passed on through systematic embroidery education. When Sookmyung Women’s School was established, in 1938, the Department of Handicrafts was also opened to provide embroidery education. Embroidery techniques, which had been passed on within the family, began to gain the characteristics of modern art through the systematic education programs. Foreign techniques were learned on top of the traditional techniques, and the students were educated on and encouraged to use the expressions and techniques employed in Western painting.

This is the work by Prof. Jeong Myeong-ja of Sookmyung Women's school. She embroidered the image of St. Mary. Using the western painting technique, she provides the shade effect.

This is an embroidery work depicting a building and trees in the mountains. The top part of the mountains were dyed, and gold thread was used on the edges, while the trees were depicted through embroidery work. The building at the center was depicted using a combination of dyeing and embroidery techniques.

This is a design conceived by independence activist Nam Gung-eok. The shape of the Korean peninsula was created using the branches of a rose of Sharon, and thirteen roses of Sharon in full bloom were used to indicate the thirteen provinces of Joseon. On this map embroidered on hemp cloth, there is a text that reads, “In commemoration of the liberation of Joseon,” on the right.

This was produced while the artist was studying at Sookmyung Women’s school. Sookmyung’s logo is surrounded by flowering plant patterns.

The embroidery work depicts pomegranate and birds, which symbolize fecundity.

The ten traditional symbols of longevity were embroidered using modern design and techniques. It won Special Selection at a national competition in 1958.

Sookmyung Women's University Museum
Credits: Story

Management│Rhie, Jin-Min
Chief Editor│Hong, Kyoung-A, Jung, Hyeran
Assistant│Park, Hyekyung, Kim, Nahyun, Kim, Songrim, Lee, Hyewon
Visual Editor│Joe, Hyewon
Photography│Han, Jungyoup(Han Studio), Seo, Heonkang

Credits: All media
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