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Monday, December 20, 2010

Ancient craft carried forward on Jeju Island

SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- A common sight outside older homes throughout Korea is of at least one persimmon tree, its gold-red fruit a tasty marker of the onset of colder days.

On Jeju Island, the semi-tropical resort located off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, these trees are not only a source of nutrition but for centuries, their unripe fruit has been used to strengthen and color residents' clothing, called galot.

Fashion designer Yang Soon-ja has modernized traditional galot clothing with her Monsengee label, while also revitalizing the traditional craft for local women whose own mothers may not have learned the dyeing process.

Galot is clothing that is dyed with the juice of unripe persimmons and is the traditional workday clothing of Jeju farmers and fishers.

Prof. Kwon Sook-hee of Jeju National University's Department of Clothing and Textiles said the "gal" portion of the name comes from the Chinese character for leather and refers to the resilient nature of the fabric. The practice is believed to have started in the 15th century during the Choseon Dynasty.

There are no confirmed records of how the dyeing process was discovered but it is believed it may have been accidental, as residents noticed that persimmon juice spilled on their clothing not only left a permanent stain but strengthened the fabric. It was later discovered to have other useful traits.

"Galot has a lot of functions," Monsengee's Yang said. "It blocks more than 90 percent of the sun's rays." It also absorbs sweat without smelling and acts as a natural insect repellent, making it ideal for Jeju's climate and traditional rural community.

A native of a small Jeju village, Yang recalls watching her grandmother and other villagers working their land dressed in bright yellow galot.

Like many older Jeju residents, Yang learned the technique through watching.

"I learned from old ladies on Jeju many years ago," she said. "While I was a little girl growing up, I watched my mother doing it."

Yang studied fashion and design at the Kukje Fashion Design Institute and La Salle College of the Arts, both in Seoul, and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"I graduated from high school and the same day I went to Seoul," she said. "While I was out, I stayed in Seoul and New York. I came back 37 years after I left. This is my hometown."

Yang established her company in 1996, naming it Monsengee for the Jeju pony, and merged the fashion aesthetic she learned in Seoul and New York with the traditions of her home island. She returned to Jeju permanently in 2002 and now harvests her own trees, using the fruit to color a range of fabrics for her high-end garments.

The colors require sunlight to develop and set and Yang achieves color variations by redyeing and adding natural substances to the persimmon juice.

Yang, who won the the title of Grand Master of Galot in 2006, said that when she dies, the title will die with her, as no one else can do what she does. She was also elected as president of Jeju's Tourism and Handcrafts Corporation in September but does not allow her added duties to keep her from passing her craft onto younger residents.

"I teach people in the local jail," she said, "so that when they get out, they know a skill and can get a job."

She also teaches classes for local residents each week, including a class for disabled people.

Yang said she teaches because she wants to share her "sense of craft" with the younger generation.

"The present generation is only concerned with learning skills by rote," she said. "I want to impart to them the importance of creativity and freedom that has made me what I am today."

In doing so, she hopes to nurture more talent on Jeju in what is a unique craft and to raise the general level of artisans on the island. At least one of her students hopes, in turn, to pass the skills she learns to others.

"When I first came here I was more interested in the sewing but since I have been here, I have become more interested in the dyeing," said Yoon Sung-sook, a Jeju woman who has studied with Yang five days a week for the past two months.

Yoon hopes to pass the traditional technique to newcomers to the island. As in much of rural Korea, many of the local farmers have married women from overseas as young Korean women moved to the cities for education and careers.

"One of my motivations in learning how to do this is that I thought of opening a welfare center for migrant women," Yoon said. "I wanted to teach them a useful skill and perhaps connect them with Monsengee as workers later on."

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