▲ Shim Sang-Hyun, a worker at Monsengee picks green persimmons, the key ingredient in making persimmon-dyed cloth. Photo by Brian Miller
While in many cultures traditional clothing is about as fashionable as beaverskin hats, one Jeju woman is taking tradition to the forefront of fashion. Yang Soon Ja founded her Jeju-based company, Monsengee, on the belief that Jeju’s traditional persimmon dyeing craft must be preserved.
Traditional yet modern Natural persimmon-dyed clothing, or galot, has a more than 500-year history on Jeju Island, where the distinctive orange and brown shades of galot work clothes are a familiar sight. The persimmon-dyed clothing was the uniform for Jeju’s farmers and fisherman but today Yang and Mongsengee are bringing persimmon dyeing to the world stage.
▲ Persimmon-dyed clothes hang like orange banners in the sun. Photo by Brian Miller
Mongsengee’s designs set them apart and president Yang works hard to ensure that her company is unique, fashionable and in tune with “natural Jeju.”
Mongsengee immediately impresses with its mix of traditional clothing and “fashion forward” designs. Yang has a design background and worked in New York for 15 years before returning to her native Jeju. Yang founded her Mongsengee brand in 1996. The name, she explained, is the old Jeju word for pony and her logo is a pony head. Yang was awarded Korea’s Certificate of Grand Master of Galchun craftwork in 2006.
Labor intensive process Yang emphasizes that it is using the traditional methods of persimmon dyeing that sets them apart. The persimmon dyeing process is very labor intensive, often taking a week to complete.
▲ Center: Persimmon cloth dyeing is a hands and feet on operation. Clockwise from top left: The process starts with green persimmons.; The fruits are handpicked before turning orange.; green persimmons are laid out, ready to be made into dye.; Crushing the fruits brings out the juices.; After dyeing the cloth is laid out in the sun, which turns it the classic orange color.; A football field becomes a drying rack for the persimmon-dyed cloth.; Another round of footwork squishes the dye into the natural fabric. Photos courtesy Mongsengee.
First, the persimmon dye, the basis of all Mongsengee’s products, is produced using special small Jeju persimmons. Green unripe persimmons are harvested in late summer and mashed into a pulp. This pulp is then soaked into the natural fabrics turning them into a light yellow color. Yang uses many natural fabrics including cotton, silk and wool.
Then it is Mother Nature’s turn to help, as Jeju’s sunshine turns the fabric into rich hues of orange. Yang and her workers lay the fabric out for five to seven sunny days. Yang notes that she “does it the right way” and uses the methods of dyeing taught to her as a child by her Jeju grandmother. To achieve other colors Yang has worked with many other Jeju organic materials including mugwort, volcanic ash, flowers and even onion skins. All fabrics begin with the persimmon dye and then can also be dyed into other colors. That way they all have the qualities of the galot clothing.
The earthy brown and grey colors are created by boiling the fabric in equal parts mugwort and water. Yang is always looking at new natural dyes that she can make using Jeju’s natural world to expand her color pallet. Natural persimmon dyes are not only beautiful but practical. Yang notes that her Jeju ancestors wisely used persimmons for their galot work clothes. Persimmon-dyed clothing resists insects, has anti-bacterial qualities, is odor resistant, stays cool in the humid summer weather and even acts as sun protection. The clothing does not have to be washed as often as other clothes and is often washed in mild soaps. Wearing Mongsengee’s natural persimmon dyed clothing is environmentally responsible, she said.
Natural dyeing without harsh chemicals not only helps Jeju’s environment but it can also help the health of the wearer. Many people suffer from skin allergies today, notes Yang, and they benefit from her naturally dyed clothing. Mongsengee doesn’t use harsh chemicals and they don’t take short-cuts.
▲ Left: Mongsengee owner, Yang Soon Ja, displays one of her original galot designs. Right: Accessories, including a basket cover and lamp shades, are also made out of persimmon cloth. Photo courtesy Mongsengee. Photo courtesy Mongsengee.
Yang designs her own line and then makes sure that the production is done the right way following the dyeing process that her grandmother taught her.
Daughter assists with design Design at Mongsengee is truly all in the family. Yang’s daughter Soondely Wang, also a designer, helps out her mother on design even though she is currently in Sweden.
Yang is constantly striving to change and improve what Mongsengee has to offer and looking outside of her mainly Korean clientele. She is confident that the world is ready for Mongsengee’s natural products.
She is also always testing out new products and new designs. Recently she added persimmon dyed socks, T-shirts and underwear to her clothing line. She also makes many other items including dog clothes, purses, table cloths, curtains, lamp shades, wallpaper and book covers just to name a few.
▲ Mongsengee’s persimmon-dyed clothes are also designed into a trendy look to attract younger generations. Photos courtesy Mongsengee.
She is also looking to win over the younger generation and is starting to include new designs aimed at teenagers. Mongsengee is also able to do something that is almost unheard of today — make custom clothing. Yang can work with customers to create exactly the look and fit that they desire.
The huge retail shop and adjoining workspace is a converted elementary school in Myeongwol-ri near Hallim. Visitors can arrange a hands-on persimmon dyeing experience, and items can be purchased by contacting Mongsengee.
Check out Mongsengee online at www.mongsengee.com. Mongsengee is located in Myeongwol-ri village near Hallim in western Jeju. The store is open daily.
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