When I knew I’d be going to Seoul, I was really hoping to find a chasu course, and learn a little in particular about the silk embroideries with their dazzling colour schemes, or maybe some bojagi, the traditional wrapping clothes that are often worked in silk, or light gauzy fabrics in a patchwork style. Unfortunately, there was nothing available I could fit into my trip, but I did stumble across a maedeup class instead.
Maedeup is a traditional Korean craft that uses elaborate knots to create beautiful shapes and designs. Sometimes beads or metalwork pieces are incorporated with the knots to create beautiful pieces, that are often used as accessories to complement the traditional hanbok dress. There are a lot of different knot making traditions in Asia, but each country has their own unique style. You’ll often see elaborate mizuhiki in Japan on the money envelope cards made from rice paper, or hanamasubi baskets, and in China, knotted pieces made from red cord are often hung on buildings as a sign of luck. The thing they all definitely have in common is that they are incredibly beautiful and I wish there was enough time in life to learn and master them all.
What I didn’t realise when booking my maedeup course at the Dong-Lim Knot Museum (if you’re visiting Korea both myself and my friend have good things to say about Trazy and their activities) is that the museum is actually situated in the Bukchon Hanok Village, or Folk Village as it is also known. Much to the dismay of the local residents, this has become a very touristy spot, famous for the traditional housing that dates to the Joseon dynasty, that spanned around five hundred years of Korean history and shaped much of modern Korean culture.
It is a beautiful spot and it’s hard not to love this style of houses, with their internal courtyards. The museum is easy to spot and one of the first stops from the main road. You can’t take photos inside but there are some beautiful photographs on their website that showcase some of the treasures inside. It is more of a two-room museum/personal collection than something on the scale of the V&A but it is completely charming none-the-less.
The class was relatively straightforward, and I will warn you they specifically advertise that they do not teach in English and to bring an interpreter if that is an issue. I found it easy enough to follow the instructions just by watching and the great thing about sitting on the floor to do the making is it’s very easy to sit face-to-face and mirror the actions you need. The little dragonfly keychain I made is deceptively hard and simple all at once, making the knots along the body is a simple gesture but it became quickly obvious you need to be a genius at tensioning to get something really perfect.
Although the class was short, it was very interesting to see some the regular students and what they were working on as well as some of the teacher’s own work. It’s captivating stuff and, while I was waiting for the glue to dry, I could have a look at their historical pieces and some of the work they make to sell. If you want beautiful maedeup accessories, this is the place to be!
The fun of the day didn’t end with just a spot of maedeup though. After that, I started to walk around the village which is host to loads of different ‘experience’ and ‘cultural lessons’. Not everything is on every day, and some classes only run at specific times, but if you’re interested in finding out about Korean quilting, papermaking, gold embossing, dyeing… this place is a great introduction. I wish I had come with a translator in a way because, while there is good signage in English, I couldn’t ask people all the questions I wanted to. Perhaps just as well as it probably saved the poor staff a lot of irritation!
One of the classes on offer was indigo dyeing, or jjok as it is known there. I haven’t done any indigo dyeing since I was living in Kyoto, at the charming shibori museum there, and as the maedeup class had finished quite early, I thought it’d be interesting to have a go at. The class was relatively simple, take cotton scarf, bunch up with elastic bands, dunk, dunk some more, rinse, rinse, rinse but taking a moment in the tranquillity of the courtyard of this house from a time long past with a beautiful indigo vat was a nice moment of peace. While I was waiting for it to dry, the teacher whisked me off to a separate house that was home to a gorgeous exhibition of natural dyeing. I have to admit, the ‘earthy’ tones of natural dyes aren’t my preferred pallet, but some of the pieces here, particularly some woven leather bags, were incredible. As well as the impressive dye work, the design of the pieces somehow manage to blend the modern and traditional seamlessly. Sadly, I couldn’t take any pictures, but this small little exhibition is worth hunting for if you are there.
There are numerous other artisans and their workshops in this part of town, and there’s plenty of other demonstrations to see, including traditional dances and a chance to see traditional outfits as well. It’s a small, brief glimpse into a historical period that I was previously rather ignorant of, as well as a chance to see some crafting techniques that were new to me and generally just a lovely slice of living history. If you’re interested in knotting techniques in general, Knotty Notions is a great website, and there’s a nice article on the recent history for maedeup here, along with other great Korean craftspeople.