THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO BOJAGI
KOREAN ART OF FABRIC (GIFT) WRAPPING – AND WHAT IT CAN TEACH YOU
History & Culture
Close in geography but distant in sentiment, the two neighbors Korea and Japan undeniably share cultural traits. What is known as "furoshiki" in Japan is called bojagi in Korea, although bojagi has never taken center stage.
Bojagi (보자기) translates as wrapping or covering cloth and originates from the word "bok," which means luck in Korean, while the word "bo" means happiness or fortune. It can therefore be transcribed as "the wrapping of luck." Ancient Koreans believed that wrapping objects protected good luck.
Bojagi (보자기) or shortened to bo (보), is sometimes also written as pojagi (褓자기) and shortened to po (褓), since there is no distinction between the sounds for “b” and “p” in the Korean language.
THE HISTORY OF BOJAGI
In Korea, bojagi are significant historical and contemporary works of art, both from visual and cultural perspectives, and have played an important role in Korean culture for centuries. All families used and produced them regardless of their social class.
It is believed that the earliest use of the wrappings dates to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), since historical records like the Samguk Sagi (annals of the Three Kingdoms) indicate the use of bojagi, but no examples have survived from this period. Back then, they were mainly used in a Buddhist context as sutras or tablecloths.
The earliest surviving examples are from the early Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910). During the rigidly Confucian society of this dynasty, women were deprived of their economic independence and prohibited from leaving their homes. Traditionally, girls learned needlework at a young age and were taught to be patient and frugal. They were excluded from formal education and reduced to their role as wives. Women spent most of their time taking care of their home and dealing with household belongings with care and thrift. They produced hanbok (traditional Korean costumes), bedding, and wrapping cloths for the whole household. Traditional hanbok clothing has round-shaped sleeves. After cutting the pattern, scraps of fabric were left over. Following the idea of frugality and simplicity advocated during this dynasty, and since fabric was very expensive, not a single scrap was wasted. The leftover fabrics were patched together into larger squares or rectangles to create a patchwork bojagi (jogakbo). Furthermore, making bojagi was one of the few creative outlets women were permitted in the house, so they poured their artistry into stitching to create beautiful pieces to express themselves. Records indicate that making bojagi was also a source of bonding for Korean women, who sewed their creations to be given as heirloom mementos to their daughters and daughters-in-law. All women, regardless of their social status, made their own bojagi by hand. The art has historically been passed down through generations of unnamed female artists.
Everyday use of bojagi declined in the 1950s and disappeared in the 1960s, giving way to cardboard boxes and plastic bags. The tradition persisted solely for important occasions like marriages but regained attention in 1997 when the Korean Beauty postage stamp series included four stamps featuring bojagi.
Today, they are commonly used, although in less formal or traditional contexts. Recently these reusable fabric wrappings also gained attention outside of Korea due to the increasing interest in the value of handmade items, as well as the use of recycled materials and the politics of sustainability in textiles.
FORMAT AND SIZES OF A BOJAGI
Bojagi traditionally are square and come in a range of sizes. Some bojagi - mostly bedding, tableware, and curtains - are also rectangle-shaped.
Unlike furoshiki, bojagi do not have specific sizes. Korean women produced the bojagi to fit their specific needs with the fabric (scraps) they had at hand. Sizes are starting from one p'ok (폭, 幅, the measurement used to sew hanbok) in width (approximately 35 cm | 14’’), for small items, to ten p'ok for larger objects such as bedding.
FABRICS USED FOR BOJAGI
Bojagi were made from various materials such as silk, ramie (a plant fiber native to eastern Asia which has a particularly lustrous appearance), cotton, gossamer, hemp, or even paper.
The different materials marked a royal or aristocratic bojagi from a commoner’s bojagi since silk was reserved for royalty and the upper classes while hemp, cotton, and ramie were the materials of choice for the bojagi of the lower classes.
Bojagi can be made from one large piece of fabric and embellished with lavish embroidery or pieced together from scraps of fabrics - known as "jogakbo."
Furthermore, bojagi can be either made from just one layer of fabric or can be double-layered. Traditional double-layered bojagi are not sewn shut all the way around but are left with an opening at one of the edges of about three centimeters, enabling it to be filled or pulled apart into two pieces and reused again.
Bojagi of all sorts could be lined with padding, or even oiled paper when used as food covering or for food transportation.
Today, the most commonly used fabrics are silk or ramie.
TRADITIONAL KOREAN COLORS
Colors often used to sew bojagi include those associated with the Five Elements (blue, red, white, black, and yellow). Bojagi used for gift wrappings are mostly white or rendered in pale shades of pink, purple, green, and blue.
KOREAN COLOR SYMBOLISM
Korean color symbolism has been influenced by various factors such as religious and philosophical systems, the Five Elements (Obangsaek), Yin and Yang, Buddhism, Confucianism, and was largely governed by different dynasties and eras, particularly the Joseon Dynasty.
A specific spectrum of colors holds particular significance in Korean history and tradition, known as obangsaek (or the "Five Elements"). "O-Bang" means "five directions," and "saek" means "color." The colors (blue, red, white, black, and yellow) not only represent different directions (east for blue, south for red, center for yellow, west for white, and north for black), but according to traditional Korean teachings, they also symbolize the "5 Elements of Life" - wood (blue), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white), and water (black). These elements (colors) were considered essential for a healthy, prosperous, and long life. Koreans have integrated these colors into all aspects of their everyday lives, achieving a sophisticated, harmonious balance in clothing (hanbok), paintings, architecture, and food. Recently, green has also become commonly used alongside the original five colors.
During the Joseon period (1392 to 1910), people adorned themselves in the bright traditional obangsaek colors for weddings, festivals, and shamanistic rites, expressing their joy. However, these vibrant colors were mostly restricted to officials. In addition, certain color combinations, like red and blue (also present in the Korean flag), were very important, especially at weddings, to balance Yin (female) and Yang (male) elements, and to chase away negative energy and spirits.
Tremendous importance is given to the meaning of white in traditional Korean color symbolism. To ancient Koreans, the color white represented the starting point, the origin, and the very foundation of humanity. Koreans believe white to be a symbol of purity, cleanliness, knowledge, innocence, and humility, and its usage implies devotion to all things natural, pure, and non-decorative. This explains their preference for wearing white clothes, something that has become such a distinct characteristic of the Koreans that it has earned them the moniker of "white-clad Koreans." During the Joseon period (1392 to 1910), scholars who followed Confucius were known to wear white robes with black trimming to visually express and honor the scholars' asceticism. Here, black and white represent the harmony, calmness, and serenity of the atmosphere. Some believe that this color choice is linked to the symbolism of crane birds, which were not caught up in worldly desires, but glide peacefully in the skies with grace, honor, and unyielding spirit.
However, this traditional symbolism has undergone many changes over the past few decades due to Western influences and international trends. Traditionally, Koreans thought of gray, taupe, beige, and brown as unclean colors. However, due to movies, Western trends, globalization, and interrelationships with other countries, trench coats in these colors have now become popular. Black has also been accepted as the color that symbolizes the West and modernism, and it is now being favored by the "white-clad Koreans" for its international fashion appeal. Red, especially in politics, was viewed as a negative color before. Today, it has become a color of hope and unity.
INTERESTING FACT: FOOD AND COLORS
Obangsaek is also applied in Korean cooking to ensure a balanced meal, both physically and spiritually. Consuming a meal containing all five colors (with blue often substituted for green) was believed to nourish the body's vital organs while maintaining life balance. The most famous Korean dish to incorporate obangsaek is bibimbap, with others including kimbap, gujeolpan, and japchae.
Interestingly, modern Western nutritionists later began recommending the consumption of five different colored fruits and vegetables a day to ensure a balanced diet.
FUN FACT: CAKE SHAPED BOJAGI
While Korean desserts have traditionally been savored during holidays, they are becoming more diverse and popular, especially among younger generations celebrating special occasions at home. Some cakes are more akin to art than food - one example is the bojagi cake (보자기 케이크), which resembles a gift wrapped in fabric.
TRADITIONAL KOREAN PATTERNS
The longing for realistic desires or connections to the world through specific objects is a key charm of Korean patterns. Traditional patterns may serve as talismans, depending on whether they symbolize a wish for an ideal life. As a result, traditional Korean patterns are viewed as visual art imbued with symbolism, value, and emotion. These designs often capture nature's beauty, the longing for utopia, affection, and prayers for good fortune.
Traditional Korean patterns can be identified by their time of origin (from the Three Kingdoms to the Unified Silla, Goryeo, Joseon periods), classified by subject matter or meaning (geometry, plants, animals, nature, lettering, character, artificial), and are influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Geometric patterns are formed by horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, or circles. These patterns can be traced back to prehistoric times and are considered to be the most primitive of patterns.
Geometric patterns include the Taegeuk pattern and the Eight Trigrams for divination. Taegeuk symbolizes development and prosperity through a balance of Yin and Yang (negative and positive) and represents the ultimate truth that is the origin of all creation in Eastern philosophy. It was mainly used in the Joseon period (1392 to 1910). The Eight Trigrams for divination explain all natural phenomena and represent the basic form of the phenomenal world. A straight line with no break (一) represents Yang (positive), and a line with a break in the center (--) represents Yin (negative). One Yang sign and two Yin signs, or two Yang signs and one Yin sign, can be united, and each is one of the trigrams.
The main subjects of plant patterns are flowers. Flower patterns often do not represent a specific flower but rather a common flower shape. During the Unified Silla Period (668 to 935), the use of the floral medallion (寶相華紋, 보상화문) – a fictional flower with eight leaves with sharpened ends – was highly popular. It was introduced from Persia to Korea and Japan in the 7th century.
Chrysanthemum is the oldest flower in the orient and symbolizes high integrity and elegance. One of the major flower patterns used in Korea is a peony in bloom, symbolizing wealth. The lotus represents purity, creation, and reproduction since it remains clean in muddy surroundings. If water birds are shown near the lotus, it symbolizes the acquisition of the seed of life, or in other words, begetting a son. Peach patterns invoke meditation and longevity, representing a mythical peach that was said to grow in heaven (Xi Wangmu legend, 서왕모 전설).
Animals are thought to be auspicious and represent desired qualities for humans. Thus, they are often used as subjects for embroidery. Some common animals are the following:
The fish symbolizes richness and success in life. The carp, in particular, is auspicious and featured in Buddhist motifs. When seen in Confucian scholar-bureaucrat motifs, the carp represents a scholar who passed the arduous civil servant exam. Some myths describe carp jumping over waterfalls or gates to become dragons, symbolizing the overcoming of adversity to better oneself or one's position in society.
Bats symbolize happiness since the Sino-Korean word for bat (bok, 복/福) sounds the same as the word for happiness or luck (복) in Korean. Thus, adding a bat decoration is seen as an act of adding more happiness.
The dragon (ryong, yong, 룡, 용, 龍) is an incredibly auspicious mythological animal in East Asia. It can shapeshift and has infinite power over wind, water, rain, storms, and the ocean. Accepted as the ruler of all animals, the dragon became prominent in shamanistic, Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist symbolism. It is why the King's suit (Gonryongpo, 곤룡포, also called Dragon Robe, 衮龍袍) was embroidered with a golden dragon, and even other decorative items have dragon motifs.
A civil official's suit was embroidered with a crane (학, 鶴), the second animal in line, which represents longevity, wisdom, purity, and the Confucian scholar’s calm, staid patience and constancy.
Military officials' robes were embroidered with a tiger or a leopard, sometimes used interchangeably. The tiger, though viewed as doughty, greedy, foolish, violent, and cruel, was also seen as wise, valiant, virtuous, just, fearsome, and brave, and was thus selected third. Although the dragon holds a high place in Korean culture, the tiger (especially the white tiger, baekho, 백호, 白虎) is without a doubt one of the most beloved and sacred animals in Korea to this day.
The number of animals showcased on the uniform displayed the rank of the official or aristocrat. In Neo-Confucianism, ranks and hierarchies were and are very important.
Nature patterns use all things found in nature, excluding animals and plants. Themes include the sun, clouds, moon, stars, landscapes, and strangely shaped rocks. These patterns usually symbolize longevity because of their immutability.
Clouds are the most common nature pattern. In the past, people believed that if they pursued virtue while they lived, they could rise to the sky riding a cloud or attain Buddha-hood. Cloud patterns also represent the dragon's divine spirit. Patterns with cranes are often seen with clouds in the background.
Cloud patterns are divided into three shapes: a cloud being blown in the wind, a cloud floating in the sky, and scattered and dotted clouds. These shapes varied by era and reflected different social backgrounds.
Character patterns refer to faces or shapes of humans, mountains, gods, Buddha, or the Four Devas.
One major example of Korean character patterns is the Dokkaebi pattern, typically used as a pattern for older documents, a knife ornamented with silver, and roof tile, originating since the Silla era.
Placing letters with auspicious meanings on an object was believed to bring good luck to the owner. Commonly used letters include bok (복, 福), hee (희, 囍), or su (수, 壽).
During the Joseon dynasty period (1392 to 1910), characteristic letter patterns were the gil sang patterns, translated as lucky signs (길상무늬, 吉祥). Examples of gil sang patterns include the man (卍) pattern and the ten traditional Symbols of Longevity (十長生).
The meaning of artificial patterns was considered more important than the design itself. The Seven Treasures (칠보문, 七寶文) are the most common artificial patterns used. These objects are considered auspicious, lucky, and conducive to longevity - such as coins, the horn of a water buffalo, books, wormwood or mugwort, the bangeung ornament (방승, ⽅勝) used for wrapping cloth, mirrors, and the teukgyeong (특경, 特磬, a traditional percussion instrument).
Coins represent good fortune and wealth. The horn of a water buffalo stands for great fortune. A diamond used for wrapping cloth symbolizes good wishes. A book represents a smooth and pleasant life in the office. Wormwood and mugwort, both traditional healing herbs (with mugwort also used in cuisine), are attributed to longevity. Mirrors symbolize power. The teukgyeong, a ceremonial gong-like instrument also known as a Sounding Stone, is associated with Confucius. Sometimes featuring Jade (옥, 玉), an auspicious stone, it is believed to promote good luck, longevity, virtue, purity, power, and regality.
One of the marvels of Korean weaving includes the ability to weave and brocade staggeringly complex patterns. It's common to either arrange patterns with similar meanings together or to combine patterns with different meanings to create a new symbol.
A tried and true series of symbols include the shipjangsaengmun (십장생문, 十長生) - the ten traditional symbols of longevity. These symbols find their way into various items, even more mundane and modern ones like pillowcases and spoons. The symbols include the sun, clouds, mountains, rocks, water, pine trees, the immortality mushroom (resembling the reishi mushroom), turtles, cranes, and deer. Each of the symbols stands for longevity, but when used together, their meaning is strengthened. The number ten (十) also represents completeness.
This pairing is usually done to further enhance the auspicious nature of certain symbols and to bring their power to their maximum potential. To emphasize the auspicious nature of the dragon (a symbol of defense against evil spirits), it can, for example, be depicted with clouds. A dragon combined with a phoenix (본황, 鳳凰, symbol of the queen and the five Confucian virtues) is often regarded as bringing luck and represents the harmonious merging of opposites. Fish symbolize life's leisure, success in life, prosperity for descendants, and conjugal harmony for couples, but when combined with the reed, they represent longevity. Another common combination is apricot blossoms (which represent spring and longevity) together with the palgajo (팔가조, a bird), which symbolizes filial piety, an important Confucian concept that persists to the present day.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF BOJAGI
Bojagi can be categorized by users' class (ordinary people or royalty), composition or structure (patchwork, quilted, lined or unlined, padded), design (embroidery, printed, painted, gold-leafed or gilded), material, and use cases or function (for example tableware, for boxes, for letters, official documents, coffins).
Jogakbo, Chogak Bo or Min-Bo (Patchwork Bojagi)
Jogakbo, chogak bo, or min-bo (조각보) are commonly known bojagi. These wrapping cloths were created with small pieces (jogak or chogak 조각) of leftover fabrics from sewing hanbok (Korean traditional garments) to old bed linen or clothes. Almost anything was processed to utilize as much material as possible. By recycling what would otherwise be wasted, jogakbo embodies sustainability from the start. These beautiful reusable wraps reduce environmental impact not only through their reusability but also during their production.
A traditional jogakbo bojagi consists of many small pieces of fabric sewn together using triple-stitched seaming techniques known as gekki (raised seam) and ssamsol (flat fell seam). These techniques result in a sealed seam, making the cloths reversible, durable, and reusable, while giving jogakbo their distinctive appearance. Patches are joined into (mostly) squares and extended in an irregular, improvisatory fashion until the cloth reaches the required size. Thoughtfully arranged shapes and colors — although sometimes only one color is used — often result in very modern and abstract compositions, reflecting Korean women’s creative sensibilities.
Multi-colored patchworks were mostly created by women from higher social classes, using silk with geometric patterns. In contrast, jogakbo made by commoners often showed irregular shapes with more neutral and softer tones, using materials like cotton, hemp, and ramie.
In contrast, the jogakbo made by lower-class citizens often displayed more irregular shapes and contained fewer colors (mostly neutral colors and softer tones). They were made of cotton, hemp, and ramie.
Jogakbo may look delicate, but they are very robust. They were used to pack and transport all kinds of items. Nowadays, jogakbo are considered an art form of their own.
Subo (Embroidered Bojagi)
The name "subo" (수보) derives from "su" for embroidery and "bo" for bojagi or bo.
Embroidered bojagi were made of one single piece of fabric, often silk or cotton. The fabric was lined, and sometimes even padded. These handmade textile covers embodied personal sentiments "stitched" into each design. The artist carefully selected colors, patterns, and even stylized embroidered imagery, comprising simple and modern aesthetic forms from nature such as flowers, fruits, trees, butterflies, birds, or bats, and other symbols related to good fortune, longevity, or happiness.
Since many subo survived in pristine condition, it is believed that these fabric covers did not have a practical function but served as signs of affection and good wishes. They are thought to be closely associated with joyous occasions such as betrothals and weddings.
Yemulbo (Gift-wrapping Bojagi)
Yemulbo (예물보) are square fabrics that have two ribbons stitched onto one corner of the fabric. The ribbons are used to knot the fabric into a bundle. This kind of bojagi is mostly used to wrap gift sets and boxes for holidays like chuseok (추석) or seolnal (설날), although valuables can also be stored with them.
Like in Japan, Koreans choose their gift wrappings according to the situation and the gift being presented. Gifts like jewelry or traditional ginseng herbs are wrapped in ornate yemulbo and feature lavish designs. Cheaper gifts are normally wrapped in simpler designs.
The most frequently used size for yemulbo bojagi is approximately 33cm x 33cm (13'' x 13'').
Hot-Bo (Single-layered Bojagi)
Hot-bo (홑보) specifically refers to unlined, single-layered bojagi, mainly made of silk and ramie (although hemp and cotton versions exist as well) and are often used for wrapping and storing items such as blankets and clothes.
Hot-bo are relatively common and traditionally also used to wrap gifts. If used as gift wrapping, they are usually knotted with outstanding knots in the shape of beautiful flowers.
Since they are single-layered, they are a bit thinner than Yemulbo and generally simpler in design, available in one single color, and lacking decorative seams, tassels, ribbons, or straps.
Gungbo or Kung-Bo (Royal Bojagi)
Royal wrapping cloths were known as gungbo or kung-bo (궁보, 宮褓) because they were used by the court and the nobility, mainly made of noble material like silk. The royal gungbo, unlike jogakbo, was not a patchwork cloth but a wrapping cloth made of one completely new piece of fabric, since it was believed that a new fabric conveyed a person's concern for what was being wrapped or covered and thus showed respect to its recipient. Unlike the use and reuse frugality of non-royal wrapping cloths, hundreds of new gungbo were commissioned on special occasions such as royal weddings, birthdays, and New Year’s Day. For a royal wedding, up to 1,650 gungbo could be made.
The artisans who made the royal cloths specialized in every step of the entire process, from weaving, sewing, and dyeing to drawing. Gungbo were often painted with designs, such as dragons. Gungbo colors are vivid and bright. The preferred colors for the royal wrappings within the Joseon royal court were red, pink, and purple. Yellow was only used by the emperor.
Sangbo (Use Case)
Cloths made for covering a table or food are called "sangbo" (상보), with "sang" meaning table and "bo" being the abbreviation for bojagi. Sangbo are made of cotton, doubled with oiled paper. There is a small ribbon in the center for easy lifting.
Other Examples of Use Cases
There are essentially as many bojagi as there are use cases. Here is a small selection to give you an impression.
Made of oiled or waxed paper, similar to the beeswax wraps used in Egypt, they were used to cover food. Because they have been oiled or waxed, they were easy to clean. The paper could be bent at the angles to fit on a board or table.
Majibo or Sasibo
Used in Buddhist temples to cover the food offered to the deities or to protect the scriptures. Usually white in color.
Chegibo or Kiujebo
Made of hemp and embroidered with dragons, carp, or white tigers, they are used for the prayer ritual for rain. Chegibo is made of hemp or cotton and is used for ancestor worship.
Available in white or black, they are very large and made of ramie or linen, used for bedding.
Designed for jewelry or toiletries, they are often very refined pojagi of small size, made of silk, doubled, and padded. They have two ribbons, one short and one long, allowing for closure when the three angles of the pojagi are folded.
Embroidered bojagi made of blue and red silk. They serve the groom to wrap the traditional wedding ducks (kirogi), symbols of eternal love and fidelity, that he offers to his wife.
DIFFERENT WAYS TO USE A BOJAGI
While many Korean traditions have unfortunately been lost, destroyed, or forgotten due to Korea's tumultuous modern history, the use of the bojagi has endured the test of time. Used by both rich and poor, they could be folded and stored, taking up minimal space in more compact homes.
These beautiful Korean wrappings were not just a means of self-expression for the maker but were integral to everyday life, serving practical purposes for specific objects, functions, or people.
As tablecloths or kitchen towels
In earlier times, Sangbo was only used at special events such as religious rituals and weddings. The earliest surviving bojagi were used as tablecloths or covers for Buddha sutras.
Later, tablecloths were used more frequently, even in everyday life. Table-sized cloths often have straps attached to the corners so that they can be fastened to the table, securing items when the table is moved.
They were also used in the kitchen or for wiping hands or mouths clean.
As (food) coverings
Different sangbo were used for covering various types of food during different seasons. Lightweight fabrics allowed air circulation in summer, while padded and lined fabrics kept food warm in winter. To prevent the bojagi from getting dirty, one side was lined with waxed paper, similar to what Egyptians and Romans did.
Examples from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century that have survived to the present day often have small ribbons or loops attached in the center of the square, to aid in lifting the cover away from the food. This is a style that is still utilized today.
As cushions or blankets
Traditional double-layered bojagi were not sewn shut all the way around but were left with an opening about three centimeters in size. This way, they could be filled with cotton or feathers to create a cushion. Bojagi were also used as blankets, beddings (Ibulpo), or bed covers.
For carrying, storing or protecting items
Bojagi were used to wrap or carry anything from precious ritual objects to everyday clothes, household goods, or food. They were used to store and protect objects or to hold articles together.
While bags are restricted in size, a bojagi has the potential to transform in endless ways. One example of its use as a bag is a "knapsack" arrangement, where the cloth is wrapped and tied so that items can be securely transported on one's back.
Jogakbo were used as general wrapping cloths for daily or household items, while hot-bo were used to wrap objects like clothing and gifts. Yemulbo were utilized for gift wrapping or as covers for important documents. Subo were mainly used to wrap gifts for special occasions.
For special occasions
Subo particularly marked special events, such as betrothals or weddings. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), mothers of brides made bojagi for their daughters to take to their new homes. This served as a way of linking them together after marriage, as they would often be cut off from their own family. The bojagi was engraved with patterns symbolizing the wish for happiness and joy, becoming a medium for warm communication between people, not just a way to wrap a gift.
In more recent Korean wedding traditions, mothers of the grooms, on the other hand, stitched bojagi (kirogibo) in which a pair of beautifully hand-carved and painted wooden ducks (kirogi) were wrapped. The groom would give the wrapped ducks to the bride's family on the wedding day as his promise to be faithful and a good provider. In Korean folklore, it was believed that ducks would mate for life and always fly together. Thus, the symbolic wooden wedding ducks are a metaphor for the groom's fidelity and protection and are a central feature of traditional Korean wedding ceremonies.
In earlier Korean wedding traditions, the groom offered a living goose to the bride's mother as a symbol of faithfulness. The bride's mother would then feed noodles to the goose, symbolizing long life and her approval of the marriage. Later, wooden ducks were used as replacements for the living goose.
For religious rituals
Historically, bojagi (chegibo or kiujebo) were also used in religious (Buddhist rites) and symbolic ways. The self-expressed individual designs often became family heirlooms.
As a form of art
Back in the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), bojagi—although very beautiful—were mainly practical and versatile items in the daily lives of Koreans.
However, the aesthetic value of Bojagi was rediscovered in the late 1960s, and more recently, this unique Korean craft has evolved from functional works into a contemporary art form that's internationally embraced and recognized. Bojagi are often featured in inspiring modern reinterpretations as well as museums all around the world, including in Kyoto, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Museum of Korean Embroidery in Seoul has a collection of 1,500 pieces of bojagi, with a particular focus on jogakbo.
BOJAGI AS CONTEMPORARY ART FORM
Viewed more as craft pieces than artwork just around 60 years ago, bojagi rapidly became a contemporary art form and are exponentially expanding from delicately pieced, hand-stitched everyday items to versatile art. This is often intertwined with fashion and photography, including reinvented mediums like fiber, paper, wearable art, wall hangings, architectural or sculptural works, installation art, body ornaments, and much more to honor the history of Korean women.
The designs and colors of the jogakbo remind one of the works of some modern abstract artists and can thus be described as a true form of abstract expressionism. By sewing together small, used pieces of cloth of various shapes and skillfully juxtaposing vibrant colors, the unknown makers of these bojagi created exciting designs akin to modern abstract art. You might be mistaken for thinking some of the historical samples have taken inspiration from abstract and colorful works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (Russian artist, 1866 to 1944), Piet Mondrian (Dutch artist, 1872 to 1944), or Paul Klee (Swiss artist, 1879 to 1940). But, in fact, they predate these by hundreds of years.
The patchwork style of the jogakbo has also inspired artists working in other media, such as clothing designers Karl Lagerfeld and Lee Chunghie. The facade of the flagship store of French jeweler Cartier in Cheongdam-dong is also reportedly inspired by the craft.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOJAGI AND FUROSHIKI
The wrapping cloths from these two nations are somehow similar but have their differences. Both nations used leftover fabrics to make the wrapping cloths. Traditional Korean costumes (hangbok) have many round shapes such as their sleeves, leading to many remnants during production that have been used to make the common patchwork bojagi (jogakbo) as a way of recycling them. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese costumes (kimono) use rectangular shapes, leaving fewer but larger remnants. Furoshiki are thus mainly made of one piece of fabric, although some Japanese cloths use patchwork stitching very similar to Korean pieces.
Traditional Korean wrappings were made by women of all social classes. Since the cloths were not signed by the artist, the creators of the bojagi are rarely known. Japanese wrapping fabrics, on the other hand, have mostly been mass-produced and often bear family crests, allowing one to identify the families that used them.
Japanese wrapping cloths are broadly divided into two categories— furoshiki and fukusa. Furoshiki are usually large for practical purposes, such as wrapping clothes or blankets (although nowadays also used as gift wrappings), while fukusa are luxuriously adorned with flamboyant patterns as decorative gift covers. Bojagi are divided into various categories and use cases but are all referred to as bojagi.
The most distinguishable difference between Korean and Japanese wrapping cloths is the patterns. Korean patterns are abstract and colorful, while Japanese patterns are pictorial, making Japanese wrapping cloths often appear painting-like. However, abstract patterns of ancient coins are commonly found in examples from both countries, indicating cultural exchanges between the two nations in the past.
Last but not least, Koreans don’t just produce art with these fabrics but also use them to wrap in a very distinctive way. Since flowers have a special meaning in Korean culture and symbolism, they use them as knots, making the wrapped gifts look like artworks themselves.
HOW TO SEW BOJAGI?
Ancient Koreans believed that keeping something wrapped protects good luck and happiness. The process of sewing pieces of cloth together was therefore considered a way of asking for good luck, happiness, and even a long life.
The creation process of a bojagi is very organic. First, you choose an element of material, shape, or color and initiate the process by putting these small fragments together. Then, you work as you go along. Sometimes the piece may grow as planned, but at other times, it may seem as if it has its own intention, creating unexpected results.
During the act of making a bojagi, each stitch (as a labor of love and prayers) infuses the bojagi with affection and carries wishes for the well-being and happiness of its recipients. The same goes for Subo; each stitch is a wish for happiness and well-being.
Even though these tidy stitches may seem intimidating, they are just combinations of basic hand-stitching sequences like the whip stitch (gamchimjil, 감침질 - used to add the ribbons on the corners of a yemulbo) or the running stitch (homjil, 홈질 - commonly used to add designs). Both of these hand-stitching techniques are also used to sew different swatches of fabric together. These triple-stitched seaming techniques are known as ggaekki (깨끼, raised seam) and ssamsol (쌈솔, flat-fell seam).
By appreciating the beauty that results from the long and slow process of hand stitching, a meditative state can be entered.
HOW TO WRAP AND TIE A BOJAGI
Like wrapping a furoshiki, wrapping the Korean way requires no special tools (scissors, tape, etc.). Some wrapping techniques use a rubber band or a hair tie to achieve their creations. Therefore, all you need to know is how to tie a knot or how to use a rubber band.
If you want to use the fabric for carrying items around, it requires a firm knot (square knot), but when you're wrapping a gift, it may be better to use a soft knot (half knot) or a rubber band.
In the following, the individual binding techniques are listed and explained with pictures. If you would like a more detailed explanation, please visit our blog. There, we have put together several video tutorials on how to wrap and tie a fabric cloth the Korean, Japanese, or Turkish way. From the most straightforward way to more advanced styles. Have fun browsing!
HOW TO WRAP A YEMULBO
This wrapping technique can be compared to the Japanese tradition of folding kinpū fukusa (furoshiki-type fukusa) or the Turkish tradition of folding a zarf bohça. The only differences are the straps or ribbons that are attached to the yemulbo.
HOW TO WRAP ALL THE OTHER BOJAGI
Most bojagi wrapping styles are beautifully arranged like flowers.
With some practice, a simple cloth can evolve into a beautiful lotus, chrysanthemum, hydrangea, peony, or even an elegant calla lily. These knots are therefore named accordingly. Chopsticks can be used to shape the ears of the knot into the form of the flower you would like to achieve.
Thicker bojagi are usually knotted with half knots or spare knots, while Hot-bo (which are usually made from very thin fabric) are mostly knotted using a rubber band.
Since anything goes when wrapping with fabric, both thinner and thicker fabrics can be seen in both knotting techniques. If the rubber band is large and strong enough, a number of these knots can also be made with thicker cloth.
The way a bojagi is wrapped around an object can also be an art in itself. Some wrapping techniques involve using two bojagi of different colors to create a charming design. Other techniques include wrapping the bojagi in various sequences and patterns to create a lovely appearance.
You can even get creative by utilizing tools around you. A flower from your garden placed onto the knot is always an attention-grabber. You can also use jewelry or ribbons to give the gift a personal touch. Look around, and you'll be sure to find something. You are also welcome to look for inspiration on our blog.
The Lotus (Knot)
The lotus wrap is similar to the Japanese wrapping style yotsu musubi. It's a super quick wrapping technique using just two half or square knots and can be done in just seconds.
The Lotus (Rubber Band Technique)
The lotus look can also be achieved using a rubber band. You just have to gather all four ends and tie a rubber band or hair tie around them. Afterwards, position the ends in the Lotus look you would like to achieve. Since you are basically just tying one knot, this technique is an even quicker way of wrapping a gift with a similar appearance.
The hydrangea wrapping style may look intimidating, but if you know how to tie a bow, this amazing look can be achieved in just seconds! It's best to use very thin fabric for this technique, though.
The chrysanthemum is similar to the Japanese wrapping style otsukai tsutsumi. It's one of the basic wrapping styles that can also be achieved quickly.
Although this wrapping style looks unachievable, the peony is quite quick and easy to pull off. You will be amazed at how easily it gets done. It's basically folding the chrysanthemum wrap (known as "otsukai tsutsumi" in Japanese wrapping techniques) shown above with a little twist at the end.
The Calla Lily
The same applies to this adorable wrapping technique. The calla lily looks pretty difficult but is executed quite easily. It is also based on the chrysanthemum wrapping technique (known as "otsukai tsutsumi" in Japan). The receiver will be very happy to receive such a nicely wrapped gift, especially because the wrapping is reusable and thus very sustainable.
HOW TO GIVE - THE BOJAGI ETIQUETTE
When receiving a gift wrapped in a bojagi, it becomes part of the gift. You don’t have to return it to the sender but can keep and reuse it when you’re giving a gift yourself.
Its destiny is to circulate, to wait for its new owner while it embellishes even the most ordinary of contents, and then transforms. Depending on the owner it meets, the fabric can become an eco-friendly, reusable wrapping, an interior design piece, or a carrying bag. A cloth that once held food is dusted off and ironed on a table, and the bojagi has far more places to go.
As a truly creative and versatile zero-waste source representing luck, the bojagi will not fail to refine your daily life.
Many ancient women made costumes for special events, such as when their husbands passed state official examinations or were promoted, for children's birthdays, or when loved ones passed away. So every patch of the bojagi reflects a story of their lives and tells a tale.
Sometimes we may feel ourselves to be just random pieces, alone and without meaning or a story, but when placed together in a beautiful composition, there can be great harmony, meaning, and use. As people of all colors, nationalities, generations, and heritages, we discover that we are all alike, and if placed together, we can be even more beautiful and meaningful, and no potential is wasted. Together we can be transformed and repurposed to work for what keeps us united – our common and precious home.
If you want to join the reuse revolution with eco-friendly fabric gift wrappings and follow them on their journey through the world, visit our online store.
Our gift wraps made of recycled cotton can be used time and time again to delight and enhance the act of giving and are therefore the very best alternative to single-use, throw-away paper wrappings. Furthermore, they are equipped with intelligence for you to be able to measure their impact on our planet.