Naju, a place marked by beautiful nature, offers a panoramic view of the Yeongsan River. In this place of picturesque nature, we find an artisan, who captures the color of the blue sky and the deep sea in a traditional indigo dye. Designated as an intangible cultural property of Korea, Jeong Gwan-chae has dedicated half of his life to reproducing the Korean traditional indigo dyeing technique known as "jjok yeomsaek" .
[Interview : Jeong Gwan-Chae, Dyeing Master
Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 115] "There are many different colors in this world, but I have dedicated my life to the color indigo. I hope to further develop and modernize Korea's indigo dyeing, and in turn, help the modernized dyeing method to take root."
"jjok yeomsaek" , an all-natural dyeing technique, uses a pigment that is extracted from "jjok," or indigo plant, as its dye. The resultant dye is characterized by its deep tone of blue and green.
[Interview : ] "Korea's traditional dyeing method creates a color that is truly nature-friendly, one that possesses a kind of emotional beauty which only humans can appreciate. The traditional indigo color stems from the soul and therefore, it carries a sense of calmness as well as depth."
Naju has been home to quality cotton since a long time ago. The nearby Yeongsan River's high susceptibility to flooding led the wetland indigo plant to become the main source of income for this region, giving rise to its prominent natural dye industry.
[Interview : ] "Due to the curvy nature of Yeongsan River, it is very susceptible to flooding. As a result, the nearby land turned into wetlands over time, creating an ideal environment for the jjok, or indigo plant, to grow. With its fertile soil and abundant sunlight, Naju is by far the most suitable place in Korea to grow the indigo plant."
His life-long commitment to indigo dyeing began when he was 20 years old, with an indigo plant seed that he received from his university professor. After many trials and errors, he finally succeeded in reproducing the traditional indigo dyeing technique and became the youngest Intangible Cultural Property of Korea at the age of 43.
Extracting various tones of indigo from a green plant is not an easy process. Planted in early March, the indigo plant is harvested in the summer. It is then placed in a crock together with rainwater and heavy stones.
The duration of fermentation may vary depending on the temperature. Generally, the pigment separates from the plant after two days, and then the indigo plant is taken out, leaving only the bluish-green liquid inside.
[Interview : Jeong Gwan-Chae / Dyeing Master ] "The main difference between the traditional indigo dyeing method and the other methods is that it takes more than one step to obtain the traditional indigo dye from its natural form. This hard-earned dye, when used, creates a beautiful indigo color that lasts forever. I think the color indigo is a color in which live the spirit and soul of the Korean people."
In order to extract the dye, slaked lime, is added to the indigo water. Slaked lime, obtained from oyster shells, serves to supply oxygen. It also helps the pigments to separate from the plant and sink to the bottom. The amount of slaked lime added varies depending on the color density of the indigo water.
[Interview : Lee Eun-ju / Apprentice] "As an all-natural process, the traditional indigo dyeing method uses only substances that are extracted from nature. Also, it means that every single step involved in the process is extremely crucial. Perhaps this delicacy is what gives the dye such a beautiful tone."
Slaked lime powder sticks to the pigments in the indigo water, causing them to sink to the bottom. Then, the suspended pigments and slaked lime particles are thoroughly mixed together in lye. Kept in a warm place, the mixture is stirred two to three times a day with great strength. Finally, when fermented for approximately fifteen days, "ggotmul" or the indigo dye is created.
The characteristic indigo tone is obtained by soaking a piece of fabric in the dye and drying it in the sunlight. The final color can range anywhere from light blue to dark indigo, depending on the duration and the number of times the fabric is soaked in the dye.
[Interview : Jeong Gwan-Chae / Dyeing Master ] "In order to obtain the traditional indigo dye, a mixture of lye and pigments extracted from the indigo plant is fermented at 25℃ to 30℃. The fabric soaked in this dye will initially turn to yellow-green, green or yellow. However, once it has been dried in the sun, it completely turns to indigo. It is almost magical."
This natural dyeing technique is vastly different from the other methods. For one, the dye is obtained only after chemical changes have been initiated by microorganisms. Moreover, it is thorough process that requires a careful selection of ingredients as well as a delicate balance of more than ten conditions, such as timing, temperature, and dilution ratio.
[Interview : Jeong Gwan-Chae / Dyeing Master
Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 115] "I think the color indigo, like the color of the sky and of the deep sea, has an emotional element that touches our hearts. It takes just as much love and dedication that go into child rearing to create this beautiful color of indigo."
Today, with a continued dedication, Master Jeong Gwan-chae dips his hands in the dye once again. As the indigo dye spreads through the fabric, so does his hope for the traditional dyeing method to take root in contemporary culture.