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Making, dyeing and using traditional Korean paper – a rewarding day of workshops at the V+A

Workshop presenters: L to R Been Kim, Susan Catcher, Rosalie Kim and Chun-ho Kim
Workshop presenters: L to R Been Kim, Susan Catcher, Rosalie Kim and Chun-ho Kim

A fascinating pair of workshops at the V&A on Saturday introduced an audience of conservators to the making and dyeing of traditional Korean paper, and of some of its modern uses.

The workshops were presented as part of the Adapt & Evolve Conference 2015 organised by the Book & Paper Group of the Institute of Conservation (Icon, a UK registered charity). The conference subject was Asian paper, and the collaboration with the V&A (supported by Samsung) enable a focus on Korean paper as part of the post-conference workshop programme.

The first workshop of the day was led by the V&A’s senior paper conservator Susan Catcher. Partly as a result of the V&A’s acquisition (supported by Samsung) of a work by paper artist Chun Kwang-young, Catcher and curator Rosalie Kim were invited to Chun’s studio in 2014, and were introduced to some of his dyeing practices. They were also introduced to Jang Yong-hoon (장용훈), holder of National Intangible Cultural Property #117 (hanjijang – Korean paper making) based in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do.

Korean Paper Making
Susan Catcher leads the dyeing workshop

Chun’s earlier work using Korean paper had focused on the infinite varieties of light and shade between white and black. But his more recent work has been much more colourful (see a selection of his work, exhibited in London last year, here), and when Susan Catcher and Rosalie Kim visited his workshop they were introduced to some of his natural dyes. The V&A workshop started with a video showing Chun’s assistants dyeing the countless numbers of triangular paper packages which form the integers of his work. And a very low-tech process it is: the humble teabag boiled in a large saucepan is the basis for the brown colouring. But for the primary colours there is indigo powder (쪽), yellow gardenia (치자) and red sappan wood bark (소목)

But it’s not as simple as boiling things up in water and then dipping the paper in the result. The acidity of the solution needs to be neutralised to minimise its harmful effect on the paper and also to enable the colour to fix better to the fibres: different dyes benefit from different mordants, though chalk, alum and soda ash are the common ones.

And while Chun Kwang-young’s practice is simply to dunk his triangular parcels in the dye using a sieve, when dyeing individual sheets of paper a more careful approach is needed to ensure an even colouring and untorn pages. Catcher demonstrated with sheets of Chinese paper and Korean hanji paper, using Japanese and Chinese brushes deploying “soft hands and strong wrists”, and then the class was let loose too:

Catcher has been experimenting with the different dyes and mordants since last year’s Korea trip, and occasionally gets advice from Chun. She asked him for tips on how to get a natural green, and soon some dried mugwort arrived in the post. Catcher’s experiments to date have only succeeded in producing a rather muddy khaki colour with this, but the class enjoyed the wonderful herbal smell as we coloured the paper:

Catcher had generously provided a handout of samples of the colours produced by different natural dyes, and on a side table showed the effects of different dyes on different qualities of paper, with and without mordant. While fascinating experimentation in its own right, the objective is to ensure when a dyed paper is used in conservation work the colour match is good and more importantly that the colour fades over time preferably at the same speed as the work that is being conserved, leaving as little sign as possible of the work of the conservator.

The afternoon session started with a masterclass in hanji making from the man whose family workshop was selected to provide the paper for the restoration of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and the Tripitaka Koreana prints: Kim Chunho (김춘호), youngest son of hanji master Kim Samsik (holder of the Gyeongbuk provincial intangible property #23) and the 5th generation to carry on the family business.

Kim Chun-ho about to start his demonstration with a specially-designed compact version of a traditional paper-making bath
Kim Chun-ho about to start his demonstration with a specially-designed compact version of a traditional paper-making bath

To demonstrate his craft, Kim had built a compact version of the traditional paper-making equipment which had been shipped flat-packed from Korea and assembled the day before like an IKEA wardrobe. At the side of the room, the various raw materials used in hanji-making were displayed: mulberry twigs before and after the steaming that softens the outer bark (닥나무 껍찔), allowing it to be stripped off; the white inner bark (백피) that produces the fibres (닥섬유); the ash (재) that softens the fibres, and the hibiscus (황촉규) root that provides the gloopy liquid (known as mulberry-glue 닥풀) that makes sure that when the mulberry fibres are mixed with water the resulting mixture forms a reasonable homogeneous consistency – rather than the fibres sinking to the bottom of the bath.

The philosophy of Kim’s paper making is never to use any added chemicals and to be faithful to tradition. He demonstrated the page-by-page paper-making process, scooping the bamboo screen (발) first towards him and then side-to-side in a fluid motion, making a sheet in which the fibres criss-cross each other rather than running parallel to each other as happens with other papers.

Now started the process of emptying out the paper-making bath, enabling it to be moved from the table so that Been Kim could give the final presentation of the afternoon, while at the back of the room the bath was being dismantled so that it could be sent back to Korea that night with the paper-master.

Been Kim has been a regular exhibitor in London (100% Design, Tent London and the V&A) and Paris (Maison et Objet) over the past few years, initially with products such as the DrinKlip inspired by her background in industrial design, and later with products inspired by more traditional Korean materials and aesthetics. Her brand name Meeets (미츠) combines two characters meaning “beauty” and “balance”.

Kim Been talks about her hanji flower basket
Kim Been talks about her hanji flower basket

Her more recent design work has been focused around hanji: her hanji flower basket is made from precisely the same mulberry fibres that make Korean paper, but in an elegant and generous shape that looks like a slipper.

Cards and ornaments using an embossed dancheong design have also featured in her recent output, but her most recent innovation has been to upcycle unused jangpanji (장판지) which is hanji treated with linseed and soya oil and used as a floor covering in houses with wooden floors and ondol. Style-conscious householders want all their sheets of flooring material to be exactly the same colour – not always easily achieved with natural dyes and oils – and so sheets of waste flooring paper which aren’t quite the right colour are in plentiful supply.

Table-top baskets made out of jangpanji flooring paper
Table-top baskets made out of jangpanji flooring paper

The toughness of the material and its pleasing oily sheen make it an innovative alternative to leather for some domestic products. On display were some of her jangpanji products: little trays, tissue box covers, envelopes and business card containers.

We rounded off what had been a stimulating and rewarding day with a little light relief: another of Been Kim’s upcycled hangpanji products is a set of zodiac animals that you can pop out of a pre-cut sheet of flooring paper and bend and rivet into free-standing ornaments.

It was a pleasant but nevertheless informative way to end the day: the oiled paper was surprisingly stiff and needed a good brushing with water to make it bend into shape.

Thanks to the organisers at ICON and the V&A, the presenters and the sponsors for making the day possible. (Rosalie Kim and Susan Catcher at the V&A; Melissa Lewis at ICON; designer Been Kim and master paper-maker Chunho Kim; and Samsung).


One thought on “Making, dyeing and using traditional Korean paper – a rewarding day of workshops at the V+A

  1. A wonderfull crossfertalisation between hand,mind and heart, where slowness(the absolute definition of civilisation) combined with creativity brings us in new dimensions. No need for hightec …

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