Korean Embroidery – Jasu

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In my last blog post dated 24 August 2019, I have talked about one of Korean traditional crafts, najeonchilgi (mother-of-pearl craft works), in this blog post, let’s talk about another Korean traditional craft, embroidery, or in Korean, jasu (자수). You could also often see products decorated by jasu in shops selling traditional Korean handicrafts.

Before going into the details of Korean jasu, let’s first watch this short video clip to appreciate the beauty and versatility of jasu. It’s pretty amazing that with a needle and threads, such beautiful patterns can be embroidered on any piece of fabric.

In fact, the art of embroidery is not unique to Korea and exists in other eastern and western countries as well. The Korean jasu is represented by its multiple, twisted strands of threads, providing a dynamic and 3D impression and seems to make the embroidered objects stand out against the background.

The Korean jasu has a very long history with relics such as spindle cart, bone and stone needles and needle pouches dated from the prehistoric period being found.  With the development of textile and dyeing techniques, Korean jasu also grew in sophistication, e.g., usage of golden threads and high quality silk, coloring of threads, etc.

During the Goryeo Dynasty, Korean jasu has become extremely luxurious and there were mainly 4 different types of Korean jasu, namely, boksik jasu, giyong jasu, gamsang jasu, and Buddhist jasu. Bosik jasu was used to decorate clothing, and as clothing was strictly regulated according to social status and rank, there were rules that needed to be complied with. For example, ordinary men and women were prohibited from decorating silk with dragon or phoenix patterns and golden threads. Giyong jasu was used to decorate the materials used in the king’s palaces. Gamsang jasu was used to decorate ornamental materials and was often used in decorating folding screens in bedrooms or living rooms.  As Buddhist was a national religion at that time, Buddhist jasu was heavily used in statues of Buddha or in temples.

During the Joseon Dynasty, the legislation of the hyungbae (official insignia) system was significant in the development of Korean jasu. Hyungbae refers to the embroidered emblems representing the ranks of government officials on the chest and back of the official robes of the royal family and government officials.  The most skilled artisans were mobilized and placed in central and regional government offices to produce clothing and related items such as hyungbae for the royal family and high-ranking officials.  Also, specialized subang (embroidery room) was set up to be exclusively responsible for the embroidery of clothing and other items for the royal family in the palace. It was not easy to join the subang – women were required to complete a certain level of education and expertise before getting selected and registered for the work.  The Korean jasu done by these skilled artisans and subang was delicate, standardized and sophisticated (e.g., using golden stitches and colored threads) and was referred to as gungsu (palace jasu).

On the other hand, jasu produced by common people which was referred to as minsu (folk embroidery) was not so specialized and standardized. As it was a domestic skill passed down through the family or the region, it was individualistic in style.  There were three main types of jasu, namely, byeongpung (folding screen) jasu, bosik jasu and Buddhist jasu.  Embroidered folding screens were used in congratulatory banquets (like anniversaries, birthdays, engagements), mourning ceremonies and other rites, and were also used in rooms at home, in palaces, temples, shrines, guest houses and lecture rooms.  Jasu was also used to decorate other items at home, e.g., pillow cases, cushions and pouches. Bosik jasu was used to decorate clothing and accessories but there were not so many items that could be embroidered by the common people.  For example, common people were not allowed to wear embroidered clothing except for the ceremonial dress worn at the wedding, and other items embroidered included children’s hats, vests, and belts.  Buddhist jasu was used for religious purposes and for decorating temples and statues of Buddha.

Next time you walk in a Korean traditional handicraft shop, you could look at the Korean jasu products more closely to appreciate the beauty of this traditional art.

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Art by Fingertip – Korean Traditional Embroidery“, Arirang News, 2018-03-12

Korean Culture and Information Service.  Guide to Korean Culture. Republic of Korea : Seoul, 2016 (ed.), pp. 209-221.

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