The Korean textile practice of bojagi (Bo-Jah-ki) —traditional wrapping cloth—is, fundamentally, a marriage of utility and beauty. Historically, it is most commonly a method of handstitched patchwork, similar to quilting, pieced together sequentially to form patterns and designs with themes of health, fertility, and wishes for longevity and abundance. The wrapping cloths were used for practical tasks such as wrapping and carrying of food and household objects, as well as for ceremonial and gift giving purposes in families, religious, and imperial courts. In function, construction, and design, bojagi reveals the subtle elegance that underlies the Korean value system and pays homage to the women whose lives were defined by acts of devotion, humility, and anonymity.
Composed of the remnants of fabric from sewing clothing and bedding, the form and content of bojagi reflects the careful and diligent resourcefulness and ethic of ‘nothing wasted.’ Typically, there were two types: kung-bo, the type of bojagi used in royal palaces, crafted by artisans of sewing, weaving, dying, and embroidery to the finest standards; and min-bo, the bojagi of common people, composed of the humble and utilitarian materials available. Embroidered bojagi, or subo (수보) was another form of decorated cloth. These cloths are closely associated with joyous occasions such as betrothals and weddings. They are used to wrap items such as gifts from the family of the bridegroom to the new bride, and the symbolic wooden wedding geese.
(illustrations from Chunghie Lee’s book, Bojagi and Beyond)
Historical records like Samguk sagi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms, completed in 1145) indicate the use of bojagi as early as the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–A.D. 668); however, the practice expanded significantly during the Joseon period (1392-1910), where many existing bojagi examples originate (Moon, 2014). The earliest examples of Korean patchwork bojagi have been connected to Buddhist ritual, including the cloths used by Lady Yi to wrap the sutras her husband Yu Kon had transcribed. (Kim, 2004, p. 163). The practice of bojagi evolved into a form of secular ceremony of daily life, one that became ubiquitous in all levels of Korean social class. Built of the remnant fabric that accompany and literally ’embrace’ the lifecycle of families and individuals (bodies, marriages, birth, death, celebration, grieving, etc.), bojagi was a way of both literally and metaphorically ‘wrapping’ the objects and events that life is composed of.
The practice of sewing and stitching is a traditionally feminine task, passed from mother to daughter at an early age, ubiquitous with the objects of daily life. Mothers would prepare ceremonial bojagi for their daughters or daughter-in-law’s as gifts during weddings and could share the emotion and wishes of abundance and longevity, the particularly feminine mode of expression was embedded with meaning, deep cultural history, and ubiquitous human experience. The tradition of bojagi holds a deep and layered story of transition, one that is particularly relevant to Korean history but that simultaneously encompasses a universal story. The sentiment ‘a wise mother and a good wife’, elucidates the way women were expected to spend their lives devoted to their families: through the labor of childrearing, sustenance, maintenance; and through the humility and submission of the honorable woman whose life is first and foremost, one of service. During a time when the Confucian value system limited the social and intellectual mobility of women, bojagi provided a form of creative agency and a means of self-expression. The voices of the ‘nameless’ women, those who lived lives of quiet servitude, carry through time and space through the act of making.
Philosophically, the practice of bojagi is rich with metaphor and deeply relevant conceptual content:
- Enclosure: vessel
- Stitch as reflective of time
- Practice of attention
- The body as a vessel
- The practice of sewing is one of attention to body, breath, movement.
- Transformation and renewal
- Honor through adornment
Kim, Keumja Pak “A Celebration of Life: Patchwork and Embroidered Pojagi by Unknown Korean Women” in Young-Key Kim-Renaud [ed.] Creative Women of Korea (M.E. Sharpe, 2004) pp. 163–173
Moon, V. (2014, January 14). “Bojagi: The Korean wrapping cloth.” Unframed. LACMA.
“Wrapped up in History.” (2013, December 9).