A Century of History - Silk Factories in Jinju
Jinju is a suburban city about 330km away from Seoul, taking three and a half hours on express train. The quiet city produces more than 70% of silk fabric manufactured in South Korea, although it is surprisingly unknown to many people.
When you get off the train at Jinju station, you will be surprised how calm it is. There is a single queue for grabbing a cab, while the drivers are entering the station one by one, at the interval of few minutes.
There are two contradictory parts inside the city. One is a serene side of Jinju with Nam river runnig along the Ji-ri mountain. On the other side, there is a city with a shopping district and a university, leading to a factory complex where the silk fabric is being produced.
The most popular spot for visit, Jinju Castle is located by the river. Built in 1379, the castle is a famous historical site, where one of the biggest victory took place during Im-jin-wae-ran, the war against Japanese invasion back in 1592 - 1598. In 1592, 3,800 soldiers of Chosun (a kingdom of Korea) won over the force of 20,000 Japanese army. Inside the castle, a shrine is built in memory of a heroine, Non-gae. A beautiful woman with courage, she allured the captain of Japanese army to the riverside, held him in her arms and dived into the river. The pavillion became one of the most beloved place in Jinju. When you ask where you should go during your visit to a local person, anyone would tell you to go to the castle.
Visiting the city for the second time, I skipped the castle and directly headed to the factory to meet Mr. Park, the second-generation CEO of a silk factory. I post some of the pictures took from the castle from my first visit for you though.
Pleiades purchases some of the silk fabric - used for covering the wedges of Iris, making straps for Joanne and Joe - from the Jinju factory. Mr. Park has been one of the crucial partners for Pleiades, from the beginning of the brand. He has been an active entrepreneur of the factory for more than 20 years, inherited from his father. The man behind one of the major silk factories operating in Korea, the man with ambitious eyes and tanned skin, constantly pacing back and forth while answering to his non-stop phone rings. Yes, he is the boss.
Pleiades interviews Mr. Park, asking about the history of silk production in Jinju and how he is looking at the industry, where it is now and in which direction it should be going.
1. Why and since when is jinju the centre of silk production in Korea ?
The history of silk production in Jinju dates back to a century ago, when Japanese people were seeking for a place to build silk factories with less cost comparing to their own country, whlie maintaining the good quality. Jinju was perfect for the location, because it is close to the coast and has an access to an abundant source of water, Nam river. The ratio of women among population of Jinju is pretty high, which is also a benefit for producing fabric.
The town was also famous for gisaengs, ranked as one of the cities where the most popular gisaeng institutions were located. When there are many gisaengs, the fashion industry soards.
Most importantly, the natural conditions are ideal for sericulture. Nam river and Ji-ri mountain are surrounding the town, providing clean and warm ource of water which is around 36 degrees celsius. The waterflow keeps on circulating via the mountains through to Nak-dong river, functioning as the natural purifying system. Clean water allows the colour of dyed fabric to be brighter and last longer.
2. How did the silk manufacturing industry evolve through time ?
Factory workers earned a fortune until the beginning of 90's. They often went on a luxurious field trip to Jeju island, which even the biggest corporation groups did not dream of. The owners of the factories drived European vehicles (which was a symbol of wealth), and everyone stocked cash in their saves.
However, the good times were called off, when synthetic fabric industry rised in Daegu and people started to substitute silk with cotton fabric for lower price and better practicality. Soon, when a financial crisis struck the nation in 1998, everything was torn down to the ground. Coming from the technicians' background, the former bosses were not ready for the sudden difficulties.
The industry needed new leaders with entrepreneur minds. The leaders who could re-brand the Jinju silk and turn the failure into an opportunity. Nowadays, Jinju people are working hard to become the better, keep developing new materials and trying to understand the international trend.
3. What materials are you developing recently ?
Actually, we have always been coming up with new materials constantly. Do you see the table over there? Every morning, I cut pieces from our new samples. Whenever a new idea comes to my mind, I discuss with our technicians to weave it out into materials. About 20% of the samples become products. The other 80% is being stocked in the secret room to be re-developed or just to be kept! We are working hard everyday to catch up the decades that we have lost in mannerism.
Inside Mr. Park's office, there is another door with a sign saying 'Entry unaccompanied by an employee strictly prohibited'. Mr. Park showed me around the 'secret room', storing both the 20% and the 80% of samples produced. "Feel free to look around. Someone is on the line, I'll be answering it outside." The colours, textures, prints, embroidery, and unprecedented mixtures of fabric.
There was a section of projects commissioned by clients with higher profiles. However, most of them had logos of the companies that they could not be used for other products. What a pity. I had to ask Mr. Park what they were for, because the luxurious and soft texture instantly captured my eyes. Some were commissioned by big companies to make a new year's gift for VIPs, while some others were made by orders from Italian manufacturers.
4. Where do you see the current position of Jinju silk ? Where do you think it should be going ?
To be honest, Korean silk is not highly valued internationally yet. Although we are confident with the quality, former Jinju silk industry did not care about the branding. They lived day by day with a narrow vision, focusing on maintaining the machines and repeating the same process over and over again. We should come up with a stronger brand image. That is why we are working so hard on new materials, despite of the cost and difficulties.
We also need human resources. I am the only CEO from the second generation of silk industry in Jinju. I first stepped into the industry 20 years ago, and for the whole 20 years, I am the youngest member of the silk union.
Government support is also required, which is too much focused on the 4th Industrial Revolution. No matter how much computers, semiconductor and Artificial Intelligence evolve, we still need chopsticks, toothbrushes, shoes and clothes. Not investing in manufacturing industry means 100% dependency on imported goods.
First time I visited Jinju, I was deeply sorry to see how depressed the atmosphere is, and how such beautiful fabric and techniques are falling behind. However, there is a new force of silk manufacturers working every hour with passion and care for what they do. Looking back on the history of modern fashion, we have been losing on so many beautiful things with priceless values. That is why Pleiades is working closely with local manufacturers and artisans, bringing materials that are considered 'old fashioned' to the front, to prove it is not. We believe that the genuine never fails.