This year I happened across the opportunity for my first visit to Seoul, South Korea. For being one of the world’s biggest megacities, cities with a population over 10 million, Seoul has a lot of charm, from a little book library park in the middle of the city, to the rivers that divide it up. The food is excellent and chimaek (chicken and beer) is a genius idea and I would be very happy to see, along with the Japanese izakaya bar traditions exported all over the world. Preferably alongside fabric markets as mindboggling as Dongdaemun.
Describing Dongdaemun Fabric Market as big is like describe the entire universe as ‘roomy’, a wholly inadequate understatement. Five floors, several buildings, hundreds and hundreds of stalls…. It’s impossible to do really do a comprehensive review of the place as there is just so much stuff it would take forever to get through. To try and make your shopping life easier though, the stalls are grouped roughly by floor. There are some cafes dotted around on the higher floors in some of the buildings, along with good public toilets, all of which makes it easy to spend far too much time here.
This is a very rough guide to the floors – the place is huge and there is lots of crossover between the floors. If you wander around you’ll get a sense of the ‘theme’ of the floor – for example a lot of the fabric stores on the lower floors have overwhelming number of sample books for you to choose from, but don’t carry a huge amount of fabric themselves. This is great as they have a huge range of ‘technical textiles’ for sportswear and particular applications but you’ll need to order things in for collection in a few days. Perfect if you have a project where you’re looking for ‘just’ the right fabric, but if you’re shopping on a whim, it might be worth heading up an extra flight of stairs.
- B1 – bedding, machine thread, some yarns,
- 1st Floor – bedding, more yarns, trimmings, accessories, lace
- 2nd Floor – hanbok and traditional fabrics, fabrics, accessories
- 3rd Floor – fabrics
- 4th floor – more fabrics, furs and speciality fabrics
- 5th floor – food court and jewellery making materials
The opening hours are theoretically 8 am – 6 pm but the reality is it seems to be more random exactly when stalls are open. I had the most luck finding the greatest proportion of shops open on weekday mornings but don’t be put off if you find yourself between eerie rows of closed stalls, if you keep going you’ll often find one or two places that are still open. The ‘randomness’ does give the place a very dynamic feel, as if you come back over several visits you’ll often find places that you haven’t seen before.
Your opinion on prices will vary depending on whether you’re local or the exchange rate of your currency is running in your favour. There are definitely bargains to be had, and if you’re buying scraps or large quantities then I found stallholders often were quite generous with no attempt at bargaining on my part. Bring cash too. Not all stalls take cards and I have the feeling it’s more convenient for all parties involved. My Korean is limited to ‘thank you’ and ‘yard’ (they cut yards here not meters) but I didn’t have any problems getting everything I wanted. I wouldn’t go expecting fluent English but I found everyone I encountered to be very kind and accommodating for my lack of language skills.
I thought Yongle Textile market in Taipei, Taiwan had an incredible range but it completely dwarfed by what’s available at Dongdaemun Market. Dondaemun goes far beyond just fabrics too; if you need any kind of crafting tool or accessory there is plenty on offer, including some nice embroidery places on the top floor, and one particularly wonderful place (5195) that has a great selection of batiks, and the Edmar Brazilian embroidery threads of all things. Not what I was expecting to find a box of just casually lying on a shelf! They also have a good range of quilting stuff, but if you’re after more there’s also a Happy Quilt stall, one of the big quilt shops in Seoul that sadly isn’t too easy to get too, that you can find at 5215. Not really my thing, but if you’re after more Korean-style quilting fabrics then this place is great. If it’s truly traditional Korean fabrics you’re after, then go around the hanbok stalls on floor 2.
There are a few places on the top two floors that have small amounts of merino for felting, as well as all the necessary sharp pointy things but spinning is probably the one habit that isn’t quite catered for here. If you’re after job-lots of hanks for dyeing, there’s a lot on the bottom two floors as well as various knitting yarns. I have to admit I’m a bit of a yarn snob these days and tend to gravitate to unusual fibre blends and colourways that I don’t think I could recreate myself but there is plenty there if you’re after something more straightforward Or, if you’ve got a hankering for absolutely godawful glittery, furry, in-your-face acrylics, there is this bonkers stuff that seems to be EVERYWHERE. It comes in so many colours! Loads of the stalls have an incredible amount of things knitted/crocheted in it. It’s what I’d describe as fascinatingly hideous… but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a brazenly tasteless yarn. I did manage to resist buying some mostly because I didn’t want to face having to work with it, rather than staring at it, mesmerised by its glittery hairiness.
If you want machine sewing thread, maybe bring a friend, or a forklift. There’s every single colour, weight and effect you could possibly want but it’s generally sold in large quantities. You can find opened or damaged cones for very affordable prices but Dongdaemun’s main audience are business customers, rather than hobbyists, unless of course you are so enthusiastic you have a 50 cone a month thread habit to get through.
I did absolutely fall in love with the lace trimmings on offer. B-2496 and the surrounding stalls have a great range of thicknesses, fabrics, and prices and for anything you might need. I love some of the lace with metallic golds and silvers in, and you can get a few colours other than white. There’s quite a good collection of blacks, but if you’re after perfect colour matches, you’ll probably need to dye it yourself. There’s another gem of a stall, B-1477-9, that’s quite close to the main street entrance that has a gorgeous collection of some of the maedeup (knotting) pieces and embroidery panels. It’s a little more expensive but their trimmings would make anything look fit for royalty!
In the likely event you get lost, there is an information desk, I think on floor 3 near the central stairs. How do you identify the central stairs? This isn’t trivial either but there is a staircase with an escalator, rather than just stairs, that is near the middle. Maybe bring supplies just in case you get lost in here forever…
While the collection of fabrics is completely amazing and I fell in love with about five hundred different sequined, shiny things, bolts of silk and velvet, and some beautiful printed designs, what I was really after was some ‘traditional’ Korean fabrics. The iconic Korean traditional dress is the hanbok, and they often feature beautiful, vibrant colours, exquisite embroidery and often come with lovely examples of maedeup work. Luckily, it’s a bit hard to miss the hanbok section, as there’s nearly a whole floor of it, where you will see catalogues and sample materials as most of the stores predominantly offer custom tailoring. Some have more fabric to hand than others, so it’s worth having a stroll around, especially to see who has offcuts and remnants if you’re not after huge lengths. It’s really beautiful stuff, from the heavier, almost jacquard-esque fabrics, to the thin, gauzy pieces, printed with gold. I would have quite happily taken the entire floor home if I could.
Beading, jewellery making, accessories, buttons, notions, anything assorted are all upstairs and if you like the Japanese Miyuki beads, there’s a good stock at A-5027. Some of the stores around also have some lovely fake-pearl strings in a whole range of colours that I did pick up with the intention of maybe incorporating them into embroidery work as there’s good variety of sizes too. A lot of the stalls do have similar stock, and not always at the same prices, so if you want to be a really savvy shopper it’s worth checking a few places for the more generic items.
It’s just as well the market is very conveniently located from the metro as I was rather weighed down with goods and managed to cover quite a few miles just walking between the stalls. It’s easy to see why South Korea is a world-leader in fashion because after seeing the place, I did briefly consider quitting my job to set up as a designer in Seoul. If you had the patience and skills to find it, your imagination would be the limit behind any textile designing here. Dongdaemun Market is so large that it brings an element of challenge into your shopping but it is very much worth a visit for just the sheer, giddy scale of choice you have here.