Wrapped Up in History: Korean Bojagi

The handsewn wrapping cloths known as bojagi date back to at least the first century BCE during the Three Kingdoms period in Korea. In traditional Korean culture, bojagi were a part of daily life as well as distinguished elements of larger ceremonial practices. Their presence was ubiquitous, used by members of all social classes of Korean society. These wrapping cloths, typically sewn into squares, were an amalgamation of materials, shapes, colors and patterns.
Silk was a common fabric, though cotton and ramie were also frequently used. Designs were enormously individual, ranging from depictions of nature and luck-bearing symbology to abstract patterning and geometric arrangements. Usually, a bojagi was created with a specific function already in mind, a certain destined user or recipient. In this way, the design was “made-to-measure” and could intelligently reflect its use and context in its very construction.
And what were the functions of these bojagi? In common use, they were food coverings, often with special loops and straps to make them fasten easily to a dining table. They were also often makeshift containers for transporting both quotidian and precious items. Everyday bojagi such as these were not uncommonly sewn from scraps of leftover domestic fabrics, similar in this respect to the Japanese folk fabric boro.
Bojagi were also important ceremonial elements, and in these instances more precious fabrics were used and more intricate embroidery was applied. Gifts for weddings, births and other milestones were wrapped in such ornamental bojagi. And in the Korean royal court, preferring not to re-use wrapping cloths, new and elaborate bojagi were commissioned for each birthday, New Year and other occasions.
As is the case with many other traditional textile crafts across the globe, bojagi was a know-how kept and practiced exclusively by Korean women. In the rigid patriarchal context of a culture infused with Confuscian values, women’s social roles were largely limited. Bojagi, then, became a communal repository for the knowledge, skill and creativity of the women who learned and participated in it. The bright color palates and extensive range of patterns and nuance demonstrate a richness and unicity, as well as a freedom not commonly found in other inherited textile traditions. Mothers passed along bojagi to their daughters, introducing not only techniques and motifs but also inviting entry into an intergenerational, communal expression of identity between Korean women.