|Kim Kyung-yeol shows the dyeing process with safflowers in his workshop in Danyang, North Chungcheong Province. The safflower pigment produces different shades of red according to the fabric. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
By Chung Ah-young, video and photos by Choi Won-suk
DANYANG, North Chungcheong Province — There are various shades of red, including pink, maroon, burgundy, scarlet, vermilion, crimson and bloodred. These vibrant colors can be created through the delicate processing of safflowers, a long-standing tradition in Korea.
Red pigments extracted from safflowers were special in ancient Korea, used mainly for the royal court and the upper class. The colors were used to dye the fabric for the king's robe in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), a process that is well documented in the royal records.
For more than 30 years, artisan Kim Kyung-yeol has been dyeing fabrics and reproducing historical clothing, such armors and "gasa" or the Buddhist monks' red robes. He began dyeing fabrics in the early 1980s, moving from Seoul to Danyang, North Chungcheong Province, in 1989 to cultivate safflowers in a 7,000-pyeong (23,140 square meters) land.
|Safflower petals. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
The artisan said safflowers grow well in this region owing to its widely varying daily temperatures. However, he chose to live in this region not only because it is ideal for his safflower farm, which stands at an altitude of 200-300 meters, but also because of its tranquil atmosphere, which promotes a "traditional mindset."
"If I stay in the city, I might not be fully committed to the traditional way of dyeing and all the processes it involves. Today's artisans should live a traditional life so that our attitudes would be the same as those of the ancient artisans," Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.
He said during the Joseon Kingdom, safflower fields were controlled by the state, as the pigments from the flowers were regarded as rare and noble. As the cost of cultivating the flowers was high and the process of extracting the natural pigments from them was complicated, only a handful of the court's artisans were allowed to dye the fabrics with safflower pigment for the kings and the upper class.
|Kim Kyung-yeol shows the dyeing process with safflowers in his workshop in Danyang, North Chungcheong Province. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Traditional Korean dyeing uses the natural pigments of flowers, leaves and fruits. In the rigid hierarchical system in the Joseon Kingdom, fabrics dyed with certain pigments were reserved for the noble class and the royal family.
"Given that dyeing skills and flower pigments are rare nowadays, I am very happy to be part of this art. It is my honor and pleasure to recreate the traditional method of dyeing today," he said.
Kim attributes his talent and passion to his family — his uncle ran a silk thread workshop, which he inherited from his grandfather. This was where Kim developed an interest in traditional textiles and natural dyeing.
Making colors from nature
Making the dyeing solution is achieved by a chemical reaction between ingredients. Kim makes very alkaline lye obtained from leaching ashes of safflower stalks, to which he pours safflower water and then vinegar made from the berries of Schisandra chinensis or "omija." A chemical reaction occurs with the combination of these ingredients, which produces the color red.
The safflower water is only tinged with red and yellow to begin with, but the addition of the vinegar removes the yellow hue and strengthens the red hue.
"The resulting pigment is neither that of the omija vinegar or the flowers. It's something between the two," he said.
Kim said the beauty of the natural pigment cannot be produced with artificial dyes. The safflower pigment produces different shades of red according to the fabric. Vegetable fibers such as cotton absorb more red pigments, while animal fibers soak in both red and yellow pigments.
|Rolls of dyed silk. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Also, unlike the reds from artificial dyes, those from the safflower pigment are very subtle. "The reds created from safflowers are not too strong. The shade and hue look different according to the weather. That's the beauty of this natural coloring," he said.
Recreating historical costumes dyed with natural pigments
Kim has reproduced historical costumes such as red armors and gasa with the help of his wife, Lee Hyung-sook, who is herself a "hanbok" (Korean traditional costume) maker. In 2006, after one year of work, he finished reproducing a red armor worn by Yi Bong-sang, a high commander of the Joseon Kingdom. The original armor had been torn apart. With the armor, he won the top prize at the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition in 2008.
"The traditional armors worn by generals or kings are both very beautiful and functional. They are often in red, which symbolizes the dignity of the wearers and the prayers for their safe return from the battlefield," he said.
The artisan also recreated numerous gasa or the Buddhist monks' red robes and held an exhibition featuring the robes in 2007.
"I focus on recreating traditional red costumes because they have special meanings — they symbolize dignity and power. I have recovered and improved on past dyeing processes," he said.
Fortunately, royal documents such as the "Gyuhapchongseo" or "Women's Encyclopedia" have records of dyeing processes using safflowers. With these records, he has managed to both preserve the traditional method and improve upon its flaws.
"I have stayed in this job because I am fascinated by the diverse and mysterious shades of red, which come alive through the various textiles and traditional patterns," he said.
"I admire the past artisans' dyeing skills, but at the same time, I need to try to improve the techniques to help preserve them kept for the future generation. I feel a great responsibility to keep this tradition alive," he said.
He said he is grateful for the help of his wife and other traditional costume scholars, among others, in his recreation of artifacts.
"I love dyeing with safflowers but could not have completed my work without my wife's sewing and embroidery and other prominent experts' historical research. All these people around me make me a skillful artisan who creates beautiful red costumes," he said.
Who is Kim Kyung-yeol?
|Dyeing master Kim Kyung-yeol. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Born in Osan, Gyeonggi Province in 1959, Kim began working at his uncle's silk thread workshop in Seoul in 1974. While working there, he developed an interest in natural dyeing.
Kim opened his own workshop in 1982 in Seoul and reproduced "gasa" or Buddhist monks' red robes upon the suggestion of Kim In-sook, a professor from Ehwa Womans University.
The artisan also recreated historical clothing dyed with safflower pigment, such as armors, gasa and royal costumes. To produce the vivid red for the king's robe, he dyes the fabric with safflower pigment more than 30 times.
He held an exhibition featuring the religious robes in 2007 and won the top prize at the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition in 2008 for a Joseon Kingdom armor he recreated.
He moved from Seoul to Danyang, North Chungcheong Province, to cultivate safflowers in a 7,000-pyeong (23,140 square meters) land in 1989.
What is safflower dyeing?
Natural red pigments from safflowers were usually used in dyeing fabrics for kings or the noble class in the Joseon Kingdom. At the time, the safflower fields were controlled by the state, as the pigments from the flowers were regarded as rare and noble.
Making the dyeing solution is achieved by a chemical reaction between the ingredients. To make the pigments, Kim makes very alkaline lye from leaching the ashes of safflower stalks, to which he pours safflower water and vinegar made from the berries of Schisandra chinensis or "omija."
The resulting chemical reaction produces the color red. The safflower water is only tinged with red and yellow to begin with, but the addition of the vinegar removes the yellow hue and strengthens the red hue.
The safflower pigment produces different shades of red according to the fabric. Vegetable fibers such as cotton absorb more red pigments, while animal fibers soak in more red and yellow pigments.