Bojagi: Traditional and Contemporary Fiber Art from Korea

Our thanks to Mirka Knaster, for this wonderful article about Bojagi and Youngmin Lee.

Bojagi and Youngmin Lee

Youngmin Lee is a portrait of quiet concentration and patience as she makes tens of thousands of the tiniest perfect stitches.  Without looking very closely, it’s hard to discern that they are not made by machine, but by hand. Despite all the handwork my Eastern European mother taught me during my childhood, I never learned this particular skill that is so essential to the Korean art of bojagi (bo-jah-ki).  I marvel at the delicateness behind something intended to be strong and practical.

Through Youngmin, I have learned that bojagi is a traditional wrapping cloth, created as a square from various natural materials, such as silk, hemp (sambe) ramie (mosi), linen, and cotton. Historically, it is an item of everyday use, such as to cover food or to carry and store things. But it has also played a role in ceremonies and rituals. People wrapped gifts for betrothals and weddings in bojagi (subo) that are embroidered with symbols of good luck—for fertility, prosperity, health, and long life. Other kinds of bojagi were employed in religious contexts.

Bojagi used by the Joseon imperial court were called kung-bo and made from cloth dyed in a range of hues from pink to red to purple. Min-bo or jogakbo, used by everyone else, were constructed from fabric scraps left over from sewing clothes and bedding. According to the woman’s aesthetic sense, the patchwork pattern could be symmetrical or irregular. This needlework was a gesture of resourcefulness (not wasting even the smallest bit of cloth) as well as of devotion to the needs of one’s family. It was also an opportunity for creative expression, especially given the rigid restrictions that Confucian society placed on women.

Youngmin explains that making bojagi includes wishing for the recipient’s well-being and happiness. Mothers made them for their daughters, who, upon marrying, would wind up living far away from their family. Youngmin clearly infuses her work with good wishes when she is stitching. For her, putting small pieces of fabric together to create a bojagi is not unlike the act of praying or copying Buddhist sutras. The quiet repetitive motion can be a different kind of meditation, leading to an inner state of peacefulness. It’s not surprising, then, that Youngmin’s presence is calm, thoughtful, kind, and patient.

Youngmin had no idea she was heading in the direction of bojagi when she left Korea twenty years ago and landed in California because of her husband’s job assignment. Living in a new culture and learning to communicate in another language while raising their daughter, Youngmin found herself re-evaluating and, consequently, appreciating her heritage. This is something that many young  Koreans exposed to Western culture perhaps have little regard for. As she recalls, “When I was growing up, Korean people didn’t give much attention to bojagi because of its abundance in daily life.”

Although Youngmin earned a master’s degree in fashion design at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, in the United States her orientation shifted. Through bojagi, she was able to reconnect to her home country and culture, which she missed dearly living in a foreign place. She was inspired by her own mother’s experiences and creative nature. Youngmin’s maternal grandparents lived in Japan in the 1930s, where they owned a business manufacturing men’s suits. Her mother remembers playing under the industrial sewing machine as a child. Although she became a pharmacist, she expressed creativity by sewing clothes for Youngmin and her siblings, crocheting curtains, and knitting sweaters. After retiring, her mother became a painter.

As a young girl, Youngmin collected small bits of fabric and saved them until she graduated college. Now she wishes she had kept that box. During her university years, she took courses in Korean costume, which later became her foundation for making bojagi and other traditional items, such as jumeoni, a pouch Korean men and women use as a small purse. Men generally carry pointed jumeoni, while women carry round-shaped pouches. Strings with knots (maedub) are attached to both styles.

Youngmin started what eventually became a new career by making traditional bojagi first, but she has since applied the age-old techniques to originate her contemporary art as well. While she brings textiles back from Korea, Youngmin also dyes cloth and incorporates fabric she finds in California. She points out that, though barely noticed before and not deemed art because it was a domestic craft, today bojagi “is considered a unique textile art form that is expanding to different mediums, including fiber, paper, wearable art, architectural forms, and installations.” Like quilts that have moved off beds and are now hung on walls, bojagi are recognized as more than practical household goods; they’re on the walls or suspended from ceilings at art shows and museums.

As people were introduced to bojagi through Youngmin’s beautiful pieces, they began to inquire how they too could create them.  Gradually, she became a bojagi instructor, which is how I first met her. I signed up for a workshop she offered in Berkeley a few years after I had seen stunning interpretations of bojagi at a 2011 exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art. I was amazed by the colors and similarity to stained glass, by the translucent quality of silk organza that resulted in shadows and a three-dimensional effect, and by how far these artists had taken one of the few creative outlets Korean women were once allowed. As a textile artist, I could not help thinking, “How is it that I never knew about this before?

Youngmin (among other Korean women in America) is helping to change that lack of awareness. She has demonstrated and or taught the art of bojagi at many places in California, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (where her work is part of the permanent Korean collection), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Oakland Museum, Mendocino Arts Center, Richmond Art Center, other arts centers and quilt guilds, as well as the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In addition to teaching in person, Youngmin created the DVD Bojagi: The Art of Wrapping Cloths to reach a wider audience.  It relates some of the history of bojagi and Korean culture, and it offers three simple projects to try. To bring people even closer to the source, she will guide participants on the Korea Textile Tour in October 2017.

Countless generations of Korean women who were held back from engaging in the formal arts managed to integrate artistic expression in their purposeful textile work. Wouldn’t they be pleased to know that their tradition is not only being perpetuated, but also heightened and enhanced by women artists around the world today?

For more information:  Youngmin Lee; the textile tour in Korea

Mirka Knaster creates award-winning fiber art in her studio on a bluff at the Pacific Ocean in northern California: Her art blog often includes reflections on fiber art exhibitions: Her books and articles have been published academically and commercially since the 1970s: