Rediscovering Korean Gold Thread

24th August 2018

Written by Nancy Williams

We’ve been hearing a lot about Korea in the news right now, especially North Korea. But current events make it easy for us to forget that Korea itself has a long, varied and rich history. Within that, textiles and embroidery have played an important role, and there are dedicated people working who are determined to preserve that.

Chinese rank badge (female), late 19th century. Image from A-Z Goldwork courtesy Search Press.

If any of you have ever tried Japanese embroidery, you would be familiar with the delicate gold threads so important to the technique. Gold threads have been used for centuries in much of Asia, but in Korea, King Yeongjo, who reigned in the middle of the 18th century, decided to ban all weaving with gold threads in an effort to reduce corruption and extravagance in his kingdom.

Although the intention may have been good, the result was that the technique for making the unique gold thread for prestigious Korean clothing was soon lost from memory.

Fast forward to 2011, and a tenacious researcher, Professor Sim Yeon-ok, decided to try to rediscover the method. Through analysis, she knew that the original Korean thread was different from that produced in China and Japan. Pure gold cut into fine filaments was just not flexible enough, so eventually she determined that the thread was made by adhering gold leaf to mulberry paper and then carefully, painstakingly cutting the sheets by hand into 0.3mm strands. Something requiring concentration and a very steady hand!

Gold-brocaded fabrics make elegant and splendid garments for ceremonial wear (source)

Professor Sim and her team then reproduced a loom from historical records and finally succeeded in reproducing some finely woven, gold cloth in defiance of the country’s push to automate, speed up and cheapen every possible manufacturing process. The result was exquisite, and almost as close to the original fabric as you could possibly hope for.

Professor Sim Yeon-ok of the Department of Traditional Arts and Crafts at Korea National University of Cultural Heritage demonstrates patterned silk weaving on the 16th century loom replica that she has re-created. (source)

We’ve heard of teams working to rescue lost languages from the brink of extinction, but Professor Sim is one of a very small number of people around the world who want to do the same for lost textile production and design. One would hope that others might take the lead and the world’s textile history is retained for generations to come.

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