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The threads of history, part 1The story of Jeju women told through the traditional clothes they wore
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승인 2009.11.12  15:28:45
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▲ Traditional Jeju clothing currently on display at the Jeju Folklore and Natural History Museum gives insight into the life and times of the people who helped solidify Jeju’s reputation for being the Island of strong women. Photos courtesy Jeju Folklore andNatural History Museum

The geological development of Jeju Island, its six ecosystems, traditions, and village occupations are all illustrated at the Jeju Folklore and Natural History Museum in Shi Cheong. Common to all aspects of Jeju is the concept of “jonang”, or living a frugal and simple way of life. Jonang is clearly exemplified in a current special exhibit, which focuses on women’s clothing during five major life events that required different attire. These included childhood, marriage, daily living (work and social), religion, and death.

Practicality is reflected in the appearance and materials that were used to fashion traditional garb. Jeju women considered their style of dress to be a reflection of their strong spirit. The lines of their apparel were modest and lovely. So too were the materials. Therefore, wearing unassuming garments composed from handmade fabrics and natural dyes represented harmony within a harsh natural and social environment.

Due to dry, shallow, soil full of volcanic ash and gravel, growing food was difficult. The strong winds would frequently blow the soil away and the high humidity would produce fungus and rot the plants. Finally, fresh water to feed the vegetation was sometimes scarce. The one thing they could always rely on to grow was grass since it grows well in Jeju’s climate. For this reason several grass pastures were built and horse and cattle became an essential source of nourishment. Fishing was also more fortuitous because Jeju is situated where warm and cold currents mix. However, variety was very limited. Therefore, if the spawning of some species was less successful one year, the inhabitants had less to eat. Even if it was a good year for livestock and seafood, for good health, one cannot live on meat alone. All of these factors resulted in biennial famines.

During the early years of the Goryeo Dynasty, which began in 918 AD, the transition from wearing animal skins to fabrics occurred. This was an effect of increased travel. Looms for silk, cotton, and hemp became an integral part of society. Hemp is known to retain color better than cotton. Dyes were made from various plants and flowers and a special dye was made from unripe persimmons which made apparel more water resistant. In July and August, the green fruits were collected and crushed with a large wooden mortar and pestle. Cotton or hemp was soaked in the juices before being laid out in the sun to dry. After 2-5 days outside, the color of the fabric changed to a light burnt orange.

Birth clothes are, of course, the first pieces in anyone’s wardrobe. Newborns were bathed with water steeped with mugwort, which is said to contain antioxidant properties and UV protection for the skin. Unripe persimmons were collected from the home of the strongest man in the village to dye sleeping gowns for babies. An un-dyed hemp jacket was handmade for the baby to wear when it was out of the cradle. When in the cradle, it was rocked non-stop by its mother. If she was out of arm’s length, she would use her foot to do the work.

In order to announce that a new baby had been born, for seven days a rope entwined around rocks and chili peppers hung over the entrance to the room where the cradle could be found. An altar table was placed in the corner of that same room with offerings to the childbirth goddess. Amongst fruit and bundles of very long threads on the table represented a request for healthy growth and longevity.

For older children, plain hemp clothing was created. For girls it was dyed pretty colors. An embroidered silk bonnet could be worn for special occasions. Delicate patterns were sewn into their knit booties. The hemp clothes were scratchy, but considered good for the skin, possibly as an exfoliant.

In the permanent displays at the museum, antique toys and games are presented. Small paper kites, wooden wagons and stilts, and bamboo water guns look especially fun. Hand-eye coordination games, such as an early version of jacks, called jackstone are shown.

*This story is to be continued in issue 14.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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