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A History Of Natural Dyes - Episode 1 - Korean Natural Dyes

A History Of Natural Dyes - Episode 1 - Korean Natural Dyes

In a new series on my blog every other month, I’ll be delving into a bit of nerdy, fiber art history. Specifically, in-depth looks into the history of dyeing around the world. I’ve decided to focus on specific cultures for each of these, so that I can go a bit deeper into that area’s dye story. Looking closely at the way art techniques developed opens a window into that culture’s entire history. New textile making processes might be added after the introduction of a new maker’s tool following a historic event, new dyestuffs are used after new trade routes open and flourish, and items are exchanged between countries, and periods of unrest result in new and unique ways to produce fibers and colors, meant for specific political, social or religious purposes. Color is literally woven into our past, and these are the stories of our ancestors, working to make those colors come to life. 

If you’d prefer to listen to this short history of color, visit our Wooland page for the audio version!

Episode 1: Jayun Yumsek or the Korean Natural Dye Tradition

This summer, I participated in a handmade/crafting trade show in Seoul, Korea called Handmade Korea. It was really exciting to have the chance to meet some of the members of their local natural dye community, and see the beautiful things that these artisans had produced for the Handmade Korea event. It was a vibrant group of dye masters, all with different aesthetics and specialties and dye processes. Many were working with linens, silks and cottons, while I was working with wool and alpaca. But the results were very similar! We had fun and nerdy discussions on mordant and colorfastness techniques, and the struggles to get certain colors to work the right way for us…

So, as you might have guessed based on our recent travels, we’re going to be looking first at the Korean peninsula, and their history with natural dyes, or 자연염색 (jayun yumsek).

In the years following the Korean War, a program began in South Korea that gave special status within their society to those artisans that were working to protect, promote and master important cultural aspects of their country. It was an effort in rebuilding after the devastation that was World War 2 and the Korean War, and it gave validity to the traditions (musical, artistic, literary or otherwise intangible) that had been passed down through generations of artists living on the Korean peninsula. 

Today, approximately 600 Korean citizens are designated as “Living National Treasures” in a list of “Intangible Cultural Properties” within Korea. When the government grants someone the title of 인관문화재, or Ingwan Moonhwajae, (literally translated as Human Cultural Asset), the work and livelihood of that artist is then supported and protected for the remainder of their life. In this way, they can both continue to make the art that they have been deemed a “master” of, and train others in the methods of producing whatever art it is that they specialize in. This program allows artistic heritage to stay alive and well. It reminds all Koreans that the cultural heritage of Korea is something that to be celebrated and valued as both a worthy profession and an artistic pursuit. Art is not….extra. It’s substantial. It’s important. It’s part of the core of a people and their story. It’s what made Korea, Korea! 

Among this list of 600 present-day Ingwan Moonhwajae (Human Cultural Assets) is at least one Jayun Yumsek (Natural Dyes) Master: Jung Gwan Chae. His speciality is indigo dye, or Jjok, and he teaches classes to any that might be curious to learn the methods of indigo dye that are specific to the Korean people. But…I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself here. I want to make sure that we’ve talked about the full story! 

So let’s look at what fibers, color and natural dyeing was like in Korea throughout their history. 

Firstly, what fibers were most commonly used for clothing in this area of the world? Due to the topography of the Korean peninsula, sheep weren’t able to flourish well enough for wool production to ever become a larger scale industry. The long, extremely cold winters, and short, wet summers left sheep sickly, with a fleece that was more suited to rugs or carpets, rather than clothing. So dyers and weavers mainly worked with other, more readily available fibers. Silk was the main protein fiber produced, and could be woven into many different types of fabric. So we see many different types of silk available during this time, from rough to extremely smooth and fine. Hemp was the most commonly used cellulose fiber, and was used by all classes of people throughout the history of Korea for day to day clothing, special attire and more. 

So let’s go back in time a little bit, to the beginning of where my research took me. Before we talk too much about specific plants used for dyeing, it’s the colors themselves that I found to be really important. 

As with most ancient people, the ancient peoples that resided in East Asia were deeply influenced by the nature that they were surrounded by. A core concept of yin-yang, or light and darkness, was represented by the sun and the moon. Alongside the yin-yang balance, were the 5 Elements that made up the universe: fire, water, tree, metal and earth. The colors associated with these 5 elements are called the 오방색, “Obangsaek”, and these colors play a big part in the evolution of color throughout the history of Korea. 

First, let’s look at what each of these 5 Obangsaek colors represent:

  • RED = creation, passion, love, used to ward off evil spirits (this is why Red bean soup is eaten on the 1st day of winter solstice in Korea, and why brides and kings might wear this color as well). Red represented the male energy that was balanced by the female energy, blue…

  • BLACK = wisdom, darkness, and death. You would rarely see this color used inside a palace, due to it’s negative implications. But, the association with wisdom meant that judges wore this, signifying their honest and honorable position. Black meant more than just darkness, but rather the darkness after the light (or wisdom) has been achieved. It’s what comes after mastery, that allows us to begin again, and balances out the brightness of blue…which we see next. 

  • BLUE = new birth, brightness, clarity. Bridal gowns would be embellished with blue threads, and maidens typically wore this color, since this represented a feminine energy. 

  • WHITE = truth, life, virginity. The most loved color in the Obangsaek. On New Year’s Day, a special celebratory soup, Tteugeok, is filled with white rice cakes, that are eaten to signify long life. 

  • YELLOW/GOLD = brightness, the rays of the sun, a starting point for all knowledge. Gold ropes signified holy sites, or things/places that needed protection. For instance, a house where a newborn baby lived might have a gold rope tied to the door, or posted outside somewhere. 

Each of these colors, as I mentioned before, was connected with a specific element, as well as geographical position and season. Lots of information to remember, so I drew a really lovely little image here to put it all in one place.



  • Blue = East, Wood and the spring season

  • Red = South, Fire and the summer season

  • White = West, Metal and the fall season

  • Black = North, Water and the winter season

  • Yellow = Center and the earth element

You can see that yellow, residing in the center, is being guarded by the other four colors/elements/seasons. That connects directly with it’s significance for places or things that need protecting, however it also is able to expand out from the center in all directions, echoing the fact that it is a starting place for the knowledge you’ll gain in life. Winter is a time for the end of things, for resting until it’s time for rebirth, and is linked with the color black, etc. etc. I think that’s enough now about the 5 core colors in traditional Korean design for now. 

(Photo courtesy of http://cafe.naver.com/colorsun/65688)

(Photo courtesy of http://cafe.naver.com/colorsun/65688)

So, these 5 colors could also be blended amongst themselves in order to create a second level of “harmonious” colors, used throughout traditional Korean designs. So, the first tier (or Cardinal Colors) were the Obangsaek, and the 2nd tier was the Ogansaek (오강색). These included: green, lighter blue, brighter red, a more dulled yellow known as sulphur yellow, and violet. These 5 colors were all created from blending of the Obangsaek colors. So, altogether, in Korean traditional design, you’ll see those 10 colors most frequently, and hopefully, as we move forward, you’ll have a better understand of the “why” behind the King’s red robes, or a maiden girl’s blue hanbok. 

백제 Baekje Era (18 BCE - 660 CE)

We’ll move forward a bit now, to the 백제 Baekje era (18 BCE - 660CE) on the Korean peninsula, when the most commonly used fibers for creating fabrics were silk, hemp, linen, cotton, gauze and ramie. I’m trying to not get too sidetracked here into the textile aspect of this, because it’s a whole different topic than color. However, I wanted to make sure you were envisioning these colors on the right kind of fabrics. There is definitely plenty more to discover here, with the creation of silkworm farms, hemp weaving, and more! But for now, I’m going to focus in on the Jayon Yumsek, or natural dyes used, beginning with the Baekje era.  

A wonderfully illustrated book by Lee Soyeon 이서연 is available by clicking the photo link! It contains sketches from all historical periods in Korea.

So, this era was significant in Korean Dye History for establishing a class structure that was directly related to the color of garment that a person was wearing, or was allowed to wear. 

This was first noted as having been set in place in 260 CE by King Goi, who, as king, would have worn robes of murex shell purple, with an underskirt of the best quality indigo blue. His head would be covered with a black and gold “Ikseongwan”. Black would have been achieved by a combination of the 3 colors: Red, Blue, Yellow, in succession, and dipped as many times as required, to create a rich black. Other royal colors of this time period were green and white. Greens would have come from a combination of indigo dyed fibers, and a yellow from something such as safflower or turmeric, which were used often in this time period in Korea for stunning yellows. Royal Hanbok, the traditional Korean robe, would have most likely been embroidered with gold filament thread (more on this gold thread later), in a technique only used by the Korean textile weavers. That gold would have been seen as providing protection to the royal person wearing the robes, and also served to show the class of the person that wore it. 

Now, we see here this trend of “purple” being associated with royalty and the highest classes. I’m planning an entire blog post just about PURPLE!…so we’ll talk more about that later!

So, the structure of the Baekje era class system, as related to color, went as follows (beginning with the highest classes, and ending with the lowest rank): purple, black, red, green, yellow and white. This was shown on the belt they’d wear around their robes, which would also be of the appropriately classed color: the robes would be purple for the elite classes, red for upper middle-classes and green for the lower middle-class. Then, at the very bottom, were the common folk in brown, or that sulphuric yellow shade we talked about before. On a typical day at the market during the Baekje era, you’d see clothing in all shades of these 10 colors (see illustration above by Lee Soyeon), and each one would let you know exactly what class a person was, often times even their profession, and whether they were royal, noble, servant or commoner. 

When thinking about this color structure from a dyer’s point of view, it makes perfect sense to me. Browns are the easiest tones to get. They’re often what’s left at the bottom of my dye vat that I don’t want to throw away, so I use it up by adding some iron and creating a nice neutral tone. It’s the brilliant reds, greens, blues that are much more difficult to come by with natural dyes. You can only get a few of those out of each dye vat before it needs to be refreshed again. Some colors require two, three or four passes through the dye vat in order to be the proper shade. So, it makes sense that these more time and labor intensive colors would be reserved for those of the higher classes. They would have been more expensive colors to produce, and because of that expense would be worn proudly by the upper classes.  

Dyehouses in the Baekje period would have been kept quite busy making these purer colors that differentiated between class and profession, and weavers would have been a large part of the community of the time period, and dyers and weavers probably enjoyed a busy, hardworking, but somewhat prosperous life. They would have been using indigo, safflower, turmeric, chestnut, logwood, murex, gromwell and more to create a stunning array of naturally dyed fabrics. 

고려 Goryeo era (918ce-1392ce)

자초 Jacho or Gromwell plant

자초 Jacho or Gromwell plant

As time progressed on the Korean peninsula, the development of public dye factories was officially noted in historical papers. During the Goryeo era (918 CE - 1392 CE) the Korean Peninsula was becoming famous for it’s 자초 Jacho dye that produced brilliant deep reds. It’s known in English as the Gromwell plant (see image below). Government regulations were even set in place regarding the planting and harvesting of gromwell, because of it’s high demand. It flourished in the climate and soil on the Korean peninsula, while it was difficult to maintain in nearby Japan, so I imagine that with the silk road trade routes in place, gromwell was being exported to Europe as well as to much closer neighbors by the dye merchants in the Korean peninsula at this time. The roots of this plant were used, and they look very similar to Madder Root, which was more common at that time in Europe. But it produces a more purple-red color than the Madder plant. Dyers at the time would have most likely ground the roots down to a fine powder using mortar and pestle of some kind, then used an alum mordant to fully fix the color to the fibers of whatever textile they were using. 

Other plants being used for dyes at the Goryeo period would have been indigo blues, turmeric root for vivid yellow-oranges, safflower which also produced yellows, cork tree, gardenias and more. The most common mordants used in the area were caustic soda, lime soda, alum, and other acids that allowed the colors to fix to the silk or cellulose fibers, like hemp. Little had changed regarding the methods of dyeing in these years, it was more that business structure of dyehouses became organized into both private and public dyehouses, with professional pigment makers being set in place by government officials, in order to provide a consistent product for the customer. 

조선 Joseon Era(1392ce-1897ce)

Following up these years of what must have been stability balanced with prosperity for the textile industry and artists, came the Joseon era. This time period in Korean history lasted from 1392 ACE - 1897 ACE, when the Korean empire was set in place. 

I had mentioned previously, to remember the gold embroidery thread that would be discussed later…So here’s a bit of a side story that also has to do with this gold filament thread:

Towards the end of this time period, 영조 King Yeongjo reigned. He was quite a notable king in Korean history, sticking closely to traditional Confucian ethics, and working to increase mercantile industries and the lives of the common man. I know there was so much more to learn about him…but he managed to make his mark on the textile industry as well. If you recall, I mentioned earlier the tradition of weaving gold filament thread into the hanbok of the upper classes and royalty during the Baekje period, and earlier times. Yeongjo wanted to reduce the corruption and extravagance that he saw in his time among the upper classes, and felt that one way to accomplish this, was to ban the use or production of the gold thread itself. 

This true gold embroidery thread had been made by master craftspeople for over 1500 years by the time of Yeongjo’s reign. To produce the thread, they would attach gold leaf to thin sheets of mulberry tree paper, so that the gold was then flexible, rather than brittle. It was then cut into super thin 0.3mm thread, and woven using looms into ornate designs for the fabrics to be used on hanbok and other items. Other areas in East Asia had a similar thread, but none was as delicate and fine as the gold filament thread from Korea in these times. 

Unfortunately, when this product was banned in 1733, all knowledge of how it was made was suddenly lost, until 2011 when textile archealogists began piecing together clues. They read over 120 texts on this subject, and finally were able to accurately reproduce a gold embroidery thread in the same way that artisans would have during the Joseon dynasty. For full details on the work that was undertaken to recover this lost technique, see this article here! It’s so important to write down and share these fiber art methods and techniques, so that we don’t lose that information to time, whatever the reason might be…

The Throne 사도, is on Netflix now! Wonderful movie!!!

The Throne 사도, is on Netflix now! Wonderful movie!!!

On a side note, it’s the controversial death of Yeongjo’s son, Prince Sado, that is perhaps the most remembered part of his time as King, not his ruling on the legality of gold embroidery thread.

Some historical accounts say that the Prince was a habitual murderer, rapist of court ladies, obsessed with clothing to the point that he would burn silk as offerings to spirits, change clothing 30 times in a morning, and murder servants that laid out clothing he disapproved of. That he was incredibly superstitious, and couldn’t bear thunder sounds after once having an auspicious dream. That he was constantly suffering mentally from not living up to his father, King Yeongjo’s expectations, and was berated endlessly in court, leading him to mental instability. That the king had no choice but to kill him because of his cruel and dangerous personality, that left even his siblings at risk of being killed by Sado. 

Others, however, write that Sado was a unfortunate political scapegoat during a turbulent time in Korean history. That his revolutionary thinking led to his untimely death. That the murders he committed, though well recorded, were due to political conflicts, and not “merely” cold-blooded murder. But does that really matter? Murder, is murder, right? That his wife assisted in the downfall of Sado as a way to promote her own family’s political ambitions, and she stood by and watched as he was led to his cruel death, not telling the real truth in her journal of her life in the palace that was published later. 

 Sado’s death was as dramatic and awful as his life. He was locked inside a 4x4x4, wooden rice chest, outside in the mid-July heat, with no food or water. Sado was inside this box only a few days, when some sources say it was covered over with grass and dirt, and after 8 days had passed, he had died inside. Now, I have no clue if he was scapegoat or sadist, but it is a pretty fascinating history, that I am glad a tiny golden threaded rabbit trail led me towards. I was delighted to find that a movie about their relationship as father and son is on Netflix right now, featuring 유아인 Yoo Ah In and 송강호 Song Kang-Ho. Highly recommended historical drama!

Modern Day

So, what is Korea’s natural dye community like today? 

As I mentioned earlier, the traditions of the Jayun Yumsek are being kept alive through the practice of giving out the title of Living National Treasure to those that have worked hard to perfect and promote natural dyes and natural dye methods. Many of those that are master dyers on the Korean peninsula have learned their techniques from speaking with and learning from elders in their communities that knew old dye methods, since higher level education on this topic wasn’t widely available. It was an oral tradition that was at risk of disappearing, until the positive thinking behind Slow Life, Human Natural Assets and the value of fine art traditions gained popularity in the late 1990’s. 

These days, Buraemi, (in Ichon, Gyeonggi Province) is designated as a Green Rural Tourism Village and is home to the Pieerang workshop, Dyer Nam Hye-Jin’s natural dye space. She sees about 3000+ people come to visit each year, that want to learn more about natural dye methods. Events like Handmade Korea, that I participated in, showcase natural dyers and artisans, so that a wider community can become interested in and support these important traditions. Daegu is home to the Museum of Natural Dyes, where you can learn about natural dye methods, as well see items from local master artisans. In Goyan, Gyeonggi province, you can visit the Institute of Traditional Natural Dyeing as well. You can visit Jung Gwan Chae, Living Natural Treasure #115 and learn indigo techniques directly from him. Or if you want to try some Korean natural dye techniques out for yourself, you can find Gromwell powder, perhaps their most famous dyestuff, available on sites such as amazon.com, and it’ll arrive in just a week from Korea!

So, it seems that the Korean Natural Dyes tradition is experiencing a healthy rebirth these days, with skilled artisans passing down their knowledge to a new generation of dyers. Personally, I’ve already ordered some Gromwell, and can’t wait to try it on some fibers! I’ll make sure to share a recipe for my Wooland citizens as soon as I can!



Winter Trade Show Season Is Here!!

Winter Trade Show Season Is Here!!

Welcome 2019!!

Welcome 2019!!