|Wancho works were even important to international trade. The “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty”
(1392-1910), or “Joseon Wangjo Sillok,” mentions that the yongmun seok (dragon-motif mat) and
the hwamun seok (floral-motif mat) were coveted by Chinese royals, and that Chinese envoys
were eager to obtain them.
Despite its long history, the art of wancho weaving was once on the brink of extinction because
of industrialization. Thankfully, however, it has survived and since 1970 has continued to be actively
sought after. Today the art has revived and is used make home decorations, personal ornaments and
even fashion accessories.
Yi Sang-jae, Master Craftsman of Wancho Weaving, was born on the tiny island of Gyodong-myeon, famous for its
beautiful sunsets. It was a village tradition to weave wancho goods for additional income when the farmers’ fields lay
fallow. His family was not an exception, and his grandfather and mother were particularly skilled at wancho weaving.
Their works were so good that a missionary priest from the Anglican Church in Britain bought several of their pieces
to take back home.
In such an environment it was natural that most of the children on Gyodong-myeon were introduced to the art of
wancho weaving at an early age to learn patience and basic skills. For Yi, after he graduated from elementary school
he began to help his family for whom wancho weaving was a great source of additional income.
As a polio victim he was not as free physically as the other children, and he
had to focus on “little works” rather than large-size mats that required much
physical labor. After learning basic skills from his grandfather, Yi Gi-o,
he became a pupil of a village elder, Yu Hyeong-sik, to learn
advanced techniques. Even from the very beginning he was
considered to be an excellent weaver, and his talent was well-
known in the community. Only three years after being introduced
to the art, he won the first prize in the Wancho Craft Contest held
on Gyodong-myeon, and his career as a full-time wancho craftsman
As a student, he found that “raising” the base upwards to form a gracefully curved plane and
weaving character patterns was particularly challenging. The key, he later found out, was to place
even pressure all over. At first, he tried to re-create patterns of auspicious Chinese characters, pine
trees and tile-roofed houses, which were among the most preferred at the time. However, he found it
difficult to conform and thus tried to find his own way. Not surprisingly, the process became much easier once he
developed his own unique techniques and style.
Gradually, he started to win prizes in various craft contests held at the province level. In 1994, he won the Bronze Prize
in the National Craft Contest when he entered a wancho tea table and other small items. However, his most glorious
moment came in May 1996 when he was given the title of Wancho Jang, or Master Craftsman of Wancho Weaving,
and the Korean government designated his works of art as “Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 103.” It was
probably the greatest honor and achievement an artist of traditional crafts could have in Korea, but for him, he said,
his happiest moment was in 1970 when he first met a woman named Yu Seon-ok. Yu was his pupil, but soon
they fell in love and married. Even today, his wife is his faithful head pupil and most trusted and loved companion.
For his wife, the long and hard training session under her strict tutor husband paid off when she entered a wancho
tea set into the 2000 National Craft Contest and won the President’s Prize, the highest honor. It was a situation that
ancient Koreans captured in an idiom that translates into: “Indigo came from blue, but bluer than blue.” After three
decades of being together, Yi and Yu are now the most successful tutor and pupil duo in Korea. But first and foremost,
they are the happiest couple in the world. “When I heard,” Yi said, looking at his wife with loving eyes, “that my art was
designated as an Intangible Cultural Property, I was so delighted that the decades of hard work were not meaningless
after all. I felt particularly grateful to my wife because she had been, and is, always by my side even when I was having
a most difficult time."
View the master's works