Guest Post: Joan Schoettler on Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth

Copyright Jessica Lanen, Shen’s Books, used with permission.

By Joan Schoettler

Love and determination are driving components in Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth, illustrated by Jessica Lanen (Shen’s, 2011), as Ju-su, a ten-year-old girl, follows her dream. Ji-su’s mother has been chosen by the Korean King to be a seamstress at the palace.

It is an honor to be chosen, but for Ji-su it means saying goodbye to her mother. Ji-su decides she will learn to make bojagi or wrapping cloths as well as her mother so she can be chosen to join her.

So where does a writer who is not Korean, who has never been to Korea, and who has never studied Korean history come up with a story set in an unfamiliar country, with an unrecognized art form, and in a unexplored cultural framework?

Little did I know, the day I strolled into the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and climbed the wide marble staircase to the Korean art display, how my world would open and all things Korean would draw me toward them. Bojagi, or Korean wrapping cloths, hung on walls and in clear, freestanding display cases. These unique abstract works of art are often compared to Klee‘s modern art. But the initial stitch for the story goes back much further than the exhibit I studied. It began hundreds of years ago with women who designed and sewed these works of art as I learned when I began my research for Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth.

Toward the end of the bojagi exhibit, a contemporary bojagi created by Chunghie Lee, a world-renowned fiber artist, caught my eye. She had silk-screened old photographs of unnamed women onto the bojagi. Chunghie Lee dedicated it to all the anonymous women who spent tireless hours sewing wrapping cloths for utilitarian purposes in their homes and in palaces for the wealthy to store and wrap their treasures. The unknown women, the colors, designs, and intricate stitches invited closer examination, and as I did so, the first thread of a children’s picture book held fast.

Copyright Jessica Lanen, Shen’s Books, used with permission.

Bojagi are cloth wrappers made to protect as well as to decorate their contents. The cloths are used to cover precious items, beds, tables and food items. The wrappers are square and rectangular and can be folded for compact storage in small living spaces of Korean homes. There are as many kinds of wrapping cloths as there are types of objects to be wrapped.

In King Yongjo’s palace in the late 1700’s, there were 273 different uses for bojagi, so the need to have women seamstresses employed in the king’s court was great. These wrappers have decorative, religious, and symbolic uses as well. The most treasured cloths are preserved as family heirlooms.

Making bojagi is a folk art practiced by women from all social classes during the Chosun Dynasty. During this period of Confucian social structure, women’s lives were restricted to their homes. Needlework became an opportunity for creative expression and to overcome the monotony among all classes. Girls were taught to sew at a young age.

It is a folk belief that when women stitched the bojagi they stitched blessing of good health, happiness, and good fortune into the bojagi. These unspoken gifts were bestowed on the receiver of the wrapping cloth.

Copyright Jessica Lanen, Shen’s Books, used with permission.

A writer spends much time creating in an imaginary world, but for me, my writing also opens my world in many unexpected ways. When I first contacted Chunghie Lee, I had no idea how well known this fiber artist was, yet she responded to my emails, edited my manuscript for Korean accuracy, and took time to share her edits.

Our first meeting was at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco where Chunghie Lee curated an exhibit, “Bojagi and Beyond.” Curators at the Asian Pacific Museum in Pasadena and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, a Korean scholar and publisher, as well as Korean people in Fresno shared their expertise and opened their homes to me, too.

When Renee Ting, editor at Shen’s Books, offered a contract, another stitch was added and good fortune for Ji-su’s story continued. This story, set in Korea in the 1700’s, was a perfect fit for Shen’s multicultural emphasis.

When I received the offer to work with Renee, she said she liked the story but she wanted about1600 words. I had already cut, pared the story down and dropped scenes I loved. But I learned to highlight and hit that delete button, tighten, and eliminate any unnecessary words.

With comments, insights, and suggestions from my critique group, and more time revising, Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth, moved into the reality of becoming a book.

Visit Joan Schoettler

The most colorful stitch began with Jessica Lanan, my illustrator. My editor chose a talented, research driven, and wonderfully creative artist. Jessica brought her prior knowledge, life experiences, and creativity to the page, expanding the characters through her attention to detail.

Her research of the Korean culture, bojagi, and Korean family life is revealed through her illustrations. Jessica brought much to this story, and for that, I am very grateful.

Quilts and cloths used for wrapping can be found in many other cultures. Books with common threads allow readers to see the universality of people through the world.

Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth opened new horizons for me. Ji-su invited me to revisit the importance of family, the hard work determination requires, and the joy of following my dream.

Cynsational Notes

From Joan: “The bojagi are from the collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.”

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