an interview with hanji artist Aimee Lee

Are you familiar with hanji? It’s traditional Korean handmade paper. Hanji has a long and interesting history, and today we’re happy to have one of America’s most knowledgeable practitioners of the craft with us to talk about it.

What does handmade paper have to do with sewing? We’ll let today’s guest explain.

Aimee Lee is an artist, papermaker, writer, and hanji researcher. She was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to research Korean paper making techniques, and she is the author of the book Hanji Unfurled published by The Legacy Press. Aimee has the first American hanji studio, located in Cleveland Ohio, and she teaches, lectures, exhibits, and is collected internationally. She describes her artistic practice this way.

My main material is paper and my central concern is how we use and consider it. I make paper from abundant native and invasive species, which involves harvesting plants, stripping and cooking, processing into pulp, forming sheets, and drying. With this paper, I make thread, sculpture, books, drawings, prints, garments, and installations. I add color and texture with natural dyes and finishes, and joomchi methods of massaging and fusing paper.

My current work is rooted in hanji (Korean paper) and its traditions. I especially love jiseung, a method of cording strips of paper to twine like baskets, practiced hundreds of years ago to reuse scraps of precious paper—a trait I have inherited. I am drawn to stories of repurposed paper, where civil service examinations, birth certificates, and genealogy records turned into household vessels, secret messages, and even shoes. Paper asserts its own personality as a chameleon and a wonder, and matches my own tenacity in a lifelong process of testing its limits.

Recently Aimee has been using hanji to make child-size dresses. Two of the pieces in her current exhibition at Still Point Gallery in Cleveland, OH are made from Oliver + S patterns. Aimee agreed to answer a few questions about her work and process for us.

Can you briefly explain what hanji is and how you became interested in it?

Hanji is Korean paper (“han” = Korean and “ji” = paper). It’s an umbrella term that refers to any paper made in Korea. The kind of hanji I am interested in is handmade in the Korean tradition, which has a unique sheet formation method.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

I became interested in hanji in graduate school when I studied book arts, which included hand papermaking. I already loved western papermaking and had been introduced to Asian papermaking, but the more I read about papermaking history, the more I noticed the lack of research (in English) on Korean paper history. Born in New York to Korean immigrant parents, I was always aware of the general ignorance of Korean culture, so I felt compelled to fill this gap. I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright fellowship to research hanji directly in Korea, which set the course for my current work.

How did you start making dresses from your hanji?

In Korea, I heard stories of male monks who made their own clothing out of hanji, which they would burn upon completing a certain part of their studies. Later, I learned the reason behind hanji clothes: no women were involved in making the paper or the garment, and the monks could remain chaste. Paper clothing eliminated the need to weave and sew, jobs known as women’s work.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

I started making clothes from hanji in 2012 at an artist residency in Santa Fe because I wanted to have a more active canvas to work on, sewing and pasting hanji onto garments instead of only applying it to a rectangular base sheet. This came from my itinerant lifestyle at the time, where I traveled from residency to residency and had no home studio. Making paper clothes felt like making art that could travel with me.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

How is the process of sewing with paper different than sewing with fabric?

Paper is not elastic. It can have a grain, but does not have a bias. It doesn’t unravel, which is one of my favorite characteristics. I use a Korean method called joomchi (also an umbrella term that covers an array of techniques) to texture my paper before sewing. It involves damp and dry crumpling of the paper, which builds in lots of wrinkles. They can act to provide a small measure of elasticity in the paper, making it much easier to sew and manipulate. Depending on how soft or brittle the paper is, the size of the garment, or what I want to do, I will sew by hand or by machine.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

How do you choose your dyeing materials? When in the process do you dye the paper?

I like using traditional materials for color, like persimmon juice (called gammul in Korean) or calligraphy ink. They are easy because they require no mordant to fix the color to keep it from fading, but technically those two are not real dyes. I sometimes pigment the pulp of the paper before I make it, which is also not dyeing. However, I do like to dye pigmented paper to get other colors.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

For natural dyes, I usually cook dye baths and coat the paper after it has been made. I prefer easily sourced material that is safe to cook in the kitchen, like red and yellow onion skins, pomegranate rinds, or avocado skins and pits. When I helped start a local dye garden, I had access to marigold, dahlia, and hibiscus blossoms. If I have a nearby indigo vat, I always dip paper scraps into it. I also get gifts of dyestuff, so recently I have had beautiful pinks and magentas from brazilwood shavings, though I can replicate a similar palette from cochineal. Sometimes I layer certain colors, waiting for the paper to dry between applications. I used to do more dipping of paper into the bath; now I do more brushing of dye onto the paper.

Hanji dress by Aimee Lee

Aimee’s exhibition of her recent work with hanji dresses is on view at Still Point Gallery in Cleveland through April 22, 2017.

Clothed, Aimee Lee

You can find about much more about Aimee’s work by visiting her website. Once there you can view more photos of her hanji dresses, and go in depth on how hanjii is made.

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2 Comments

  1. This work is stunning!
    And I love that artists also appreciate not having to finish seam allowances

  2. Audrey

    Are they wearable and can you wash them?

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