Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Straw-Plant Handicraft Museum

The Museum of Korean Straw and Plants Handicrafts has been in operation for over 20 years, and since 2001 has been in Hyehwa-dong. The founder, Byung Sun In, has a passion for straw handicrafts and culture and has been doing intense research on Korea’s handicraft straw-plant culture for the past 35+ years.  It is because of her passion and research interest that this museum exists. The museum houses over 100,000 items in the permanent collection made of straw-plant fibers or for household related to such production.

What is straw-plant culture?


Since ancient times, straw and plant have been the oldest and most widely used materials by mankind. Although history doesn’t show a Straw and Plant Age like the Stone or Iron Ages, in prehistoric settings straw and plant were essential for building, tool-making, carrying, providing shelter and comfort and for innumerable other domestic devices. Straw—derived not only from rice stems, but also wheat, barley and Indian millet—made a number of essential daily tools like the straw roof, the entrance of a village, baskets for carrying a variety of things like dirt and farm produce, winnows, scrubbers, straw cushions, and even pillows. Straw was also versatile as a building material as an element of brick making.


The museum has a collection of 16 kinds of knots for making the every day tools.
The outcome of using various types of straw and plant fibers, some with or without plant-based dyes,
is apparent in these beautiful bags for decoration, carrying or storing.
Containers and handbags for storage of delicate items like make-up or for a purse or "lunch box"
as is evidenced by the containers in the background.

Traditional straw shoes were another essential, and as many as 10 pairs of shoes were generally made for each person each winter so that as soon as one pair wore out, which took about 10 days, another pair could be slipped on. Ladies took more care with their shoe embellishments and they wore “flower shoes” made more painstakingly of hemp, ginseng, cattail or rushes dyed in colorful water. Shoes were not only for the seasons but were made for various occasions, especially for those who held positions in society. For examples, the upper class wore delicate hemp cord sandals, chief mourners had “mourning shoes” and their benefactors wore “horsehair shoes.

The traditional straw thatched houses used the largest amount of straw in the past. While the upper class had rooves of tiles, the lower class made rooves of rice straw. And for those too poor to afford rice straw, plants like cogon and eulalia grass were used. Constructing a straw house and thatching it was a communal affair as it was difficult to do such a task alone. First the walls were constructed with piled thatch and then the thatched roof was put on. This task had to be done every year or two for the house to remain functional.

The large round mat is over 50 years old, but most straw items in the museum or much more recently made.
Everything in the museum is hand-crafted. 
More items. Of particular interest to our group taking the first English tour of the museum is the urine pot. It is the rounded metal pot with odd hole in the side (for dumping the urine). The lowest class of people would travel from house to house and collect the urine for a tiny amount of money and then sell it to farmers as fertilizer. Their carts royally stunk, but though they were avoided because of their ripe smell, those workers were an essential part of society.
Pillows on the right, decorated by shiny dyed rice-fiber artwork (more pictured on the left). Rice fibers were split open to reveal their shiny interior; they were dyed and cut to size and carefully woven into intricate designs. Giving such a pillow to a woman's in-laws was a  respectful gift, which revealed the industriousness of the daughter-in-law and her filial respect to her elders by relationship.

Straw also played a big part for religious and recreational occasions. For example, the golden twisted straw rope on the front gate or village entrance was used in religious ceremonies or to announce the birth of a child. Masks made of straw or plant fibers were various: basket mask, winnow mask, zodiac mask—each created to be used for certain festival events. Also a heavy twist of rice straw or arrowroot vine rope for making a giant game of tug-of-war (man against woman, or uptown against downtown) was commonly played on lunar celebrations; women were often secretly helped to win in this event as it was believed to bring them luck. Straw ropes could also be used as a warning to people. For example, putting charcoal, Korean paper and pine branches along with a straw rope woven in counter-clockwise twists at the village entrance meant “do not enter”; this rope was appropriately called the “left twisted straw” and referring to it as such was a euphemism for “beware”.


Very well crafted! Not sure its purpose though -- traditional or merely as modern decoration?
A raincoat in the background, often made of cattail fibers, and in the foreground,  a very clever piece of artwork. I didn't ask if this was a child's toy or maybe just a modern creation, but it's of high-quality weave and strength.

Plant fibers had a wider variety of uses than rice straw—for examples, a mat of sedge or cogon, Korean paper made of peeling the mulberry tree, and the raincoat made from cattail. And many of the above mentioned tools could easily be substituted with a wide variety of plant fiber varieties in abundance throughout the peninsula.


Obviously, rice and plant fibers have played an essential role in the social and cultural development of Korea. Non-essentials like crafts and stylized artistic pieces were a part of many homes, particularly in the wealthier homes. However, there was a large decline in the need for straw and plant fibers when materials like iron and wood started to be widely used. However, in later centuries, the straw-plant culture made a resurgence, and now in modern times, contemporary artists are reviving the artform of using straw and plant and children are commonly given classes in straw or plant fiber crafts.

The museum has a room for craft-making also, and a much larger display than this was on shelves for the public to enjoy looking at and to even sign up for classes ... although the classes are primarily aimed at children.
Since this was the first English tour ever given at the museum (on October 15, 2014), all those who participated in the tour were given materials to make a "zipul" (straw, 지풀) grasshopper house, an item that children often used in ages gone past. Even though in the upper right-hand corner it looks like there's a hole at the bottom of the house, grasshoppers are known to jump up, not down, and so they do not escape from the house.

Much of the above information was taken from the website for the museum.


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