“An object in a museum case... must suffer the denatured existence of an animal in the zoo,” observes Bruce Chatwin’s narrator in his novella Utz. “In any museum the object dies – of suffocation and the public gaze – whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch.” Chatwin’s Utz is speaking of porcelain, but he voices a sentiment that regularly troubles the revival of traditional craft skills. Museums archive examples but keeping skills and knowledge alive – rather than offering custodianship of objects – is a different challenge entirely. “I started to think about precious things,” explains the Korean designer Oma when I enquire about the origins of her eponymous design label. Based in Seoul, Oma now spends several months of each year overseeing hand production in the picturesque region of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The launch of her first clothing collection in 2010 at the celebrated Livingstone Studio in Hampstead was prompted by her sense that traditional textile production methods in Korea were dying out. “I was ashamed to see ancient textile practices disappearing,” she explains; hand crafted textiles were visible “only in a museum or gallery – but not really alive.” Oma’s approach offers us an antidote to fast fashion, although she is quick to correct the assumption that fashion alone is the culprit.“It is not fashion and textiles only. All consumption is going so fast,” she reminds me, referring to our “speed obsessed environment”. Fast fashion is sold to us as an expansion of choice. Don’t like what you see this week? Come back next week: colours, hemlines and cuts will have changed. Bored with your look? Minimal investment can correct it all: bin everything and start again! Oma doesn’t subscribe to this logic, instead seeing that “mass production potentially narrows choice.” We may now be awash with volume, but as consumers we do not enjoy much variety of choice. In response to this quandary, Oma set about sourcing textiles made by hand that could become the basis of the collections she designs. “We work by hand as much as we can – it has different energy – a human spirit.”
Admittedly, it is a business approach fraught with challenges. “There are very few artisans left in Korea,” she explains. A technical rather than hands-on education is popular throughout the region and traditional techniques do not – at least for now – interest many emerging Korean designers. (Oma’s own textile education in Korea focused on technology and she admits her interest as a student in studying natural dye recipes from the elderly women still practising was hardly a popular course of action at the time.) Today her inspiration continues to come from “an artisan’s way of working”. She sees the steps to textile production by hand such as spinning or weaving as “processes that are spiritual” and cites the Indian textile design company Raag as a model of inspiration, again taking the local but working with a sophisticated contemporary eye..... To read the full article click on the Selvedge Articles icon from issue 74.