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  • Writer's pictureEryn Gordon

5 Popular Korean Crafts to Try

Updated: Apr 4

A popular Korean craft is mother of pearl lacquerware
Posing with a mother of pearl mirror

Thanks, I Made It: Handicrafts to Try in South Korea

Want to learn about a country's history? Immersion into cultural art and local crafts are some of the best ways to broaden your knowledge. One I thing I love about living in Korea is having access to activities that, while new to me, are sometimes thousands of years old. Both preservation efforts and long-withstanding pride for tradition have made it possible to continue experiencing the Korean way.

The country has a long history of conflict and occupation. Prior invasions almost succeeded in the country's destruction; had it not been for the collective perseverance some of Korea's may have been forgotten. Local guides have worked hard to preserve tradition and

proved time and time again that they won't just give up their history.

Through Seoul's hanok village, a neighborhood centralized around cultural experiences, you can easily fill an afternoon (or two, or three) with fun yet educational activities. Some popular ones include walking tours, enjoying a plethora of street food and exploring one of the palaces in the area.

Behind worn doors and silk screens, artists open their studios the curious creators. Whether it be a room fragrant with tea and silent besides the sound of slippers padding across the floor, or a boisterous, messy class covered in splattered paint and filled with laughter, there's something for everyone. I had a chance to experience some of Korea's traditional crafts and documented my experiences here.

For booking these experiences, I found Trazy as a helpful guide and linked to their classes below.

1. Calligraphy | 서예

Considered as the cornerstone of Korean craft, calligraphy was practiced long before the creation of hangul (the Korean alphabet) in 1443. Initially artists wrote in Chinese characters (hanja) and continued to do so well into the nineteenth century. Overtime, nationalist rhetoric helped to popularize the use of hangul. When at one point, using hanja had been considered sophisticated, it turned into an outdated practice marked by a negative history and desire for individual identity. Today, works of calligraphy can be seen everywhere you look, from practice books bought in a store to permanent displays at the national museum.

Experience calligraphy here.

2. Mother of Pearl lacquer art | 나전칠기

A combination of shells and resin are at the forefront of this craft. Called 'najeonchilgi' in Korean, 'najeon' meaning 'mother of pearl' and 'chilgi' meaning 'lacquer-wear,' it's a craft not unique to Korea though heavily practiced to this day. Various other countries in Asia boast their historic use of mother of pearl in both art and items for practical use. It's thought that the craft arrived to Korea during the Silla period (57-935 CE) though it gained momentum during and ultimately became a representative of the Goryeo period.

Opalescent shells formed intricate designs of twisting vines and chrysanthemum flowers on personal items used by nobles. Today, lacquer-wear is a practiced art for anyone with a little dexterity and patience to enjoy. The artist had a lovely, quiet studio space shared in Yongsan Crafts near Itaewon. She was both friendly and patient; clearly dedicated to her work. While she helped me, she discussed the art of lacquer-wear and its history.

You can make a reservation here.

3. Maedeup / 매듭

Maedeup is the art of traditional knot tying and dates back to as early as 57 B.C. It employs unique braiding techniques to create beautifully intricate knots, which originally had practical use for hunters to hang tools from a belt.

Colorful strings used for Korean crafts
Colorful strings used for Korean crafts

As time went on, knots became more elaborate and seen as an accessory. Their use became limited to royal families to show social status and which family one was born into. Their popularity peaked during the Joseon dynasty and began to disappear during Japanese occupation due to the regulations enacted to restrict their use.

A bowl of colorful maedup knots in Bukchon Hanok Village
Colorful Maedup Knots

Knot tying made a come back in decorative items to use around the house, jewelry and detailed pieces on clothing, especially norigae, the knot tied to a woman's traditional jacket. There are over 30 types of basic knotting techniques.

I had an early morning class with the owner of the shop. He's an artisan who learned the art of maedeup from his mother, who had mastered the craft over fifty years. His studio space is intimate and calm, perfect for discussing its history and asking deeper questions.

You can make your own maedeup here.

4. Hanji paper | 한지

Paper making began somewhere between the third and sixth century in Korea, not long after its inception in China. Made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree and the slimy mucous produced by the roots of an aibika, hibiscus, flower, hanji is a traditional style of paper crafts. Because of its durability, hanji is used for a number of different crafts.

During the early twelfth century, the use of hanji expanded from letters and printed books to cigarette containers and artificial flowers.

Artists now use hanji as a way to integrate their history into modern practice. Dipping the paper into wax increases its flexibility, durability and water resistance, making it ideal for decorative pieces and houseware items.

The studio I went to was located in the center of the cultural district of Seoul, a fitting home for it. The artisan was a kind woman with a studio filled with brightly colored paper goods. Hanji covered every flat surface. I dipped a brush into liquid glue and smoothed paper across the surface of a wooden box, which transported me back the old days of papier-mâché crafts.

You can visit the same studio I went to here.

5. Dojang | 도장

Korea has held tight to the tradition of using a dojang (stamp) in lieu of writing a signature. Despite the growing popularity of using a signature, many Koreans still have a seal of their own name. Every registered business has its own company seal as well.

Making your own seal is a unique craft to take part in. Initially I thought I'd never use my seal but now I love to stamp it on letters and other items to personalize. The artisan I went to in Insadong had a huge selection of stones ranging in shape, size and design. Some of the stamps came as a plain stone, whereas others had a decorative foil design. I purchased an onyx-colored stone with a cherry blossom design. Some of the stones come as a set of two for newly-weds!

After I made a selection, I wrote my name for the artisan. He gave me the option to write it in hangul (Korean) or in English. I choose hangul because it was during my final week in Seoul and it felt like the appropriate punctuation to my time in the country.

From there, it took only 30 minutes. The artisan used a machine cutter to engrave the stone and from there I choose a pouch.

Out of all the the things I made, I enjoyed the lacquer art most. The artist was friendly, welcoming and informative about the history of the craft. I had to employ some intense patience with this craft, but finished a great piece that I'll hand onto for years.

Would you like to try any of these crafts?

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