A gyubang pouch hanging from a branch with little lights behind it.
A traditional Korean pouch of the sort Jae Veenstra will help people make at Mia on April 4.

Gyubang! The Korean crafting craze coming to Mia on April 4

By Tim Gihring //

As Mia’s new special exhibition, “The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989,” makes clear, the global spread of South Korean pop culture is as intentional as it is relentless. From Gangnam Style to Squid Game to the sudden spike in kimchi consumption, the push to export K-everything has been a soft-power play by a young democracy trying to assert itself in the world order, and the hits keep coming. The latest: gyubang, a form of traditional Korean craftwork.

Still largely a South Korean phenomenon, gyubang style has nonetheless found its way onto Hermes and Chanel handbags. Gyubang markets, workshops, and exhibitions have popped up everywhere from Saudi Arabia to London. And now, Minneapolis.

Headshot of Jae Veenstra

Jae Veenstra will lead a demonstration of gyubang craftwork on April 4 at Mia.

On April 4, Jaehyun Yang Veenstra and the Textile Center will teach the gyubang basics at the museum’s Meet at Mia: Shape of Time event, crafting small treasures among the music and drinks and exhibition tours. As Veenstra explains, the work takes many forms and much of the value is in the making. Indeed, the word gyubang refers not to an object at all but the place where it’s made: the boudoir, or women’s space.

During the Joseon dynasty, which began in 1392, men and women in Korea were compelled to live sharply separate lives. Men had their spaces, women had theirs. Women were suddenly limited in other ways, too, their education curtailed, their clothing designed to hide. Among the few activities open to them were needlework and clothes-making. And so, when women gathered in the gyubang, they began devising handicrafts out of leftover fabric.

“Under pressure from all these restrictions, this was their form of expression,” Veenstra says. “They would use these little bits of fabric to decorate things and turn them into gifts.” Embroidery and patchwork were the mainstays and still are, along with knots, quilting, and natural cloth dying. Pincushions, pouches, and thimbles remain popular even now, alongside modern applications like key rings and cell-phone accessories.

Veenstra, who lives in Edina, had worked as a designer in South Korea for a decade before getting married and moving to the United States. Her husband was a student. “While he studied, I practiced art things at home,” she says. Then, on a long visit to South Korea, she sought a gyubang teacher and found an official master, a woman who instructed Veenstra in both the making and the living of the craft.

“You have to properly represent yourself and the art,” Veenstra says. “And you need patience. I thought I could make things right away, and she said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do that. We’ll get there.’” As a designer, used to moving from one project to the next, Veenstra found this confounding at first and then freeing. “You know when you’re a kid and you get a new toy, you just want to keep playing with it? That was me after my first class. My heart was pounding. I really loved it.”

Veenstra returned to the U.S. with the idea of learning more and passing it on. In fact, it’s part of the “living” of gyubang—you don’t do it for yourself, you do it for others. One of the original forms of the craft, still popular today, is bojagi, or wrapping cloths. Traditionally, Korean women would wrap everything from bedding to clothing, but also gifts, and giving these handicrafts away remains part of the art.

Photographs of Korean handicraft, including bookmarks and a pincushion

Some of Jae Veenstra’s gyubang creations: patchwork bookmarks and a pincushion.

When Veenstra introduces gyubang at Mia, however, she also wants people to be kind to themselves. “I start by showing how to thread a needle the traditional way, which is not easy and people are often overwhelmed,” she says. “We’re so attached to learning life skills as a kind of destination, but this is play, this is comfort.” She will demonstrate how to make a simple pouch. Then she’ll ask people to write down their worries and wishes, attach them to the pouch, and hang the object from a willow branch, long revered for its strength and adaptability.

“I want them to see it as a mindful practice,” she says. Even for Veenstra, the practice remains just that—a ritual, an engagement of the senses—without focusing on perfection. The handwork roots her in the present, though she sometimes finds herself reflecting on the past. To connect with gyubang is to connect with its earliest practitioners, forging beauty out of frustration. “It makes my heart warm,” Veenstra says, “to think that in those hard times, women sat down and made these things.”

Meet at Mia: Shape of Time is April 4 from 5 to 9 p.m., free (food and drink for purchase). Learn more about Korean crafting classes with Jae Veenstra from her Instagram (@jae.jogakclass) or by reaching out to her directly (Jaehyun.veenstra@wildswans.co).