Byungsun In
Director, Museum of Korea Straw and Plants Handicraft

About 2,000 years ago, Korean people started using the sedge plant, according to the ancient record of Samguksagi (The Historical Record of Three Kingdoms), which refers to the use of the plant to make a palanquin curtain.

Sedge is a semi-aquatic annual plant that grows up to two meters high. Its triangular sectional stem is pliant and glossy. The cultivation of sedge is similar to the process and period for cultivating rice. Whole villages planted and produced large quantities of sedge plants in irrigated rice fields while some farmers, in a corner of their rice fields, produced smaller quantities for personal use. The sedge plant was widely used by farmers to make everyday articles such as baskets, mesh bags, round mats, rush mats, cushions, and shoes.

During the Joseon dynasty, sedge products were produced on a large scale. At that time, production took place in more than eighty regions throughout the peninsula according to The Chronicles of the Joseon dynasty, and most of these items were exported to China and Japan, where hwamunseok (a mat woven with flower designs) was in high demand because of its fine material and splendid patterns that were otherwise not available.

There are two ways to handle sedge to produce handicraft goods. One way is to cut the stem into three pieces. The cuts should be deep and run the length of the stem, so the working material becomes thick and crude but soft; this method has been applied to producing flower-patterned mats, usual mats, and baskets of the Ganghwa region. Another method is to pare the plant’s surface into seven to eight layers to dry and so it becomes thin and hard; such a technique was applied when making dragon-patterned mats and rush mats in the Bosung region.

Recently, the production of sedge handicraft goods has sharply declined due to rapid industrialization. At present, this precious tradition is preserved only in the Ganghwa district in Gyunggi province and the Hampyung district in Jeonranam province. Furthermore with the widespread availability of industrial goods and the reduction of rural populations, the production of sedge goods for family use has almost ceased.

The Korean government has designated a master as a national intangible cultural property for the preservation and transmission of Korean sedge handicraft. Both Seoul and Incheon have also each designated a master as an intangible cultural property at municipal level. Even though these three artisans are dedicating themselves to the transmission of the tradition, it is still doubtful that their strenuous efforts will keep this tradition from the threat of cheap sedge goods manufactured in foreign countries and flooding Korean markets.