The process for making Hansan ramie, renowned for its exquisite fineness and delicacy, remains uninfluenced by modern mechanization. It has remained virtually the same since ancient times, from the way women weave on a loom to the tailoring of clothes from the fabrics.
The demand for traditional ramie has declined greatly with the introduction of a variety of textiles and Western-style dress in modern times. About 200 bolts (one bolt is 30 centimeters wide and 21.6 meters long) of ramie were traded at the Hansan Market last July 6, the high-demand season. It is a substantial drop from the over 1,000 bolts that used to be traded on market day during the late 1980s. However, there are still enough fastidious dressers who insist on the unique beauty of Hansan ramie to ensure a minimal demand. A ramie hanbok, Korea's traditional costume, is still regarded as elegant and refined today as it was in the past.
Delicate, light and fine as cicada wings, Hansan ramie is a high-quality fabric only produced in the vicinity of Soch'on-gun. Among the various types of Hansan ramie, semoshi is extremely fine textured. The fibers are acquired by chewing the tip of the bark of ramie plants into hair-thin strands. The strands are then twisted to form long pieces by rolling the ends together on the knee. A fine reed is used to weave the warp, which consists of 700 to 800 strands of two-ply fiber 30 centimeters wide. Semoshi can be woven only by using extremely fine reeds for the warp. Because it is extremely difficult to weave such fine fabric, only a few people in Hansan produce semoshi and then special orders only. This also makes the fabric very expensive. Hansan ramie becomes as fresh and glossy as new when washed, lasts a long time and almost never tears. Hansan ramie is much finer and crisper than Chinese ramie orcoarse Japanese ramie woven on machines.
The demand for ramie clothes increases in summer, but because Hansan ramie is expensive and to make clothing from it is painstaking, only people who recognize the true value of ramie wear them these days. A person immaculately dressed in a hanbok of ramie is an extremely rare sight in the heart of Seoul today. From June to September when there are many weddings and receptions, one might occasionally see a woman or two dressed in an unlined ramie summer jacket. Fashion shows occasionally show ramie hanbok ensembles that outshine all the other garments in elegance and refinement. Ramie is also used to make modern outfits. For example, a German designer recently made disco dresses out of ramie for a stage performance.
For some reason, ramie hanbok look better on older women. A woman dressed in a ramie ensemble complete with a jade ring or jade hairpin resembles a beautiful flower and leaves a lasting impression. Only a generation ago, ramie clothes were worn daily during the summer months and it was a routine chore for women to starch and dye ramie clothes, and make knotted buttons to sew on unlined ramie jackets.
There are still a number of men in more conservative regions of the country who choose to dress in ramie for a dignified look. Groups of older men in ramie ensembles complete with a ramie coat talking together in the Andong Market are a picture of refinement, much like dignified members of an academy discussing important matters. Market days used to be a time for older men to get decked out in their ramie clothes. When I was staying in Ponghwa for several days in the summer of 1985, I saw old gentlemen playing paduk (a board game) in the elevated wooden hall of the men's quarters. Even though he was fully dressed in a ramie coat, he never showed any signs of discomfort and never uttered a complaint about the suffocating heat. In the afternoon, when the wilted branches of a willow tree swept the ground, he walked away with his white ramie coat flapping in the wind. It is an unforgettable memory of home that I cherish.
The ramie clothes that are preserved today as relics are of various designs and so elaborate that they could pass as garments from a chic fashion show. The oldest known Korean clothes are made of ramie and date to the end of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and are all kept in Buddhist temples. Among the 17th century relics of the mid-Choson Dynasty, there is a snow-white ramie ch'ollik, an official outfit for a military officer. A sewing machine could not rival the exquisite needlework on the jacket and skirt sewn together with numerous pleats 1 millimeter apart. Among the relics of Hung-wan of the late Choson Dynasty is a court official's summer garment of ramie and a dark pink ramie coat lined with silk for spring and fall. The fancy garments reveal the fashion sense of a first-rate seamstress and the stylish taste of the owner, a member of the royal family. Among the relics of Princess Pogon, who died in 1832 at the age of 15, is a beautiful apron of deep crimson ramie.
There are also photographs of past Koreans dressed in ramie. One of particular note is of several judges in ramie top'o, an overcoat with wide sleeves and an extra layer of fabric in the back, which was taken in 1884. A sense of dignity comes from the overall harmony of the wide sleeves, collars, hats, and chest bands as well as from the judge's dignified facial expressions. Although wearing several layers of clothing beneath their overcoats, the men look light and crisp enough to soar up to the sky. It is also easy to see that the garments are made of Hansan semoshi. The men in the picture are holding fans instead of swords and wearing horsehair hats.
The photograph captures a fleeting moment at a time when such finery was worn for everyday summer wear. Perhaps it could be called "Portrait of Men in Ramie Clothes."