|In his “Straw Craft and Grass Craft of Joseon,” Yanagi Muneyoshi, a Japanese folk art historian, praised the
art of wancho weaving: “A wancho work is made by human hands, but it displays the supreme beauty of nature
without any hint of artificiality.”
A work of wancho art is created from a great deal of patience and time-consuming effort and care. However,
the art of wancho unusually starts with wancho farming. As the quality of a wancho piece depends on the quality
of its raw material, wancho farming is a very important part of the whole process. Planting normally takes place
in April, followed by transplanting in May. Weeding should be done frequently until harvest time, which should take
place on an early morning of a fine day between July and August. Preparing the wancho after the harvest is equally
time-consuming and difficult: all the stalks should be cut into several strips before boiling, and dried completely over
several months. Then the strips are laid outside for approximately six days and nights to be dampened by dew and
bleached by the sun’s rays. After this process is completed, the wancho strips attain the distinctive glossy white color
and are ready to be woven.
Today, there are two types of weaving: machine-weaving and hand-weaving. Square mats are normally woven by
a machine, whereas round mats and other items are woven by hand. Yi Sang-jae, however, prefers hand-weaving
regardless whether a mat is square or round. A beginner normally starts with making a small mat. It may look simple
at first sight, but the key is, as stated before, to employ both patience and deft fingers.
Many try the art of wancho weaving but most give up within less than a year of beginning. It may be appropriate, then,
that art critics praise Yi by saying no one is comparable with him because he has worked as a wancho craftsman for
more than 50 years.
The works he makes are varied enough: mats, kkot samhap (floral-motif triple-piece container sets),
donggori (round baskets), sajuham (document cases), jewel cases and needlework boxes.
He seems to be able to make any household item, although one has to admit
that it isn’t easy work.
Although he is an experienced weaver who has dedicated his life to
the art, Yi confesses that making a wancho ware is “testing your patience.”
Even the ‘simplest’ item such as hwabang seok (a small floral-motif mat)
takes a whole day. For a more intricate item such as samhap or sajuham,
he needs 10 to 15 days just for the weaving. He says that to complete
a hwamun seok (a large mat with floral motif ) one needs over 600,000
By the time his skill had matured and he had become widely recognized,
his works began to be sought after by Japanese collectors and Western missionaries,
as well as Korean art connoisseurs. His pieces were even exhibited by a museum in Britain, with help from an Anglican
The widespread reputation of his art is a result of his superior skill and most critics are generous in their praise of him.
The following passage was taken from a report prepared before his art was designated as an Important Intangible
“Yi Sang-jae’s wancho art, accomplished after four decades of experience, is extraordinary. In his work, all the stripes are
evenly woven, in good order and beautiful. The patterns of characters, flowers and cranes dotted around are nicely arranged to
form a good natural composition. One of the greatest things of his art that excels others is that the front and back of a woven
work is correctly matched.”
Yi assures us that he has never been bored with the form, color and texture of his works although he dedicated most of his
life to the art of wancho weaving. That is why he looks so happy in his workshop weaving a new piece as if he is weaving the
Korean tradition strip by strip.
View the master's works