CULTURE & ART

GUARDIAN OF HERITAGE Jeju’s Haenyeo Cherish Modern Artisan Yi Seong-mo’s Diving Suits

Yi Seong-mo makes wetsuits for the fabled haenyeo, the women deep sea divers of Jeju Island. Believing that the safety of the women who work deep underwater without any breathing apparatus depends on his craft, he feels an infinite sense of solidarity and affection for them.

Yi Seong-mo, an artisan maker of wetsuits, helps fit a new diving cap on a haenyeo at his workshop in Jeju.

When he sees a group of haenyeo (“sea women”) emerging magnificently from the sea after their dives, their black wetsuits dripping seawater, the man’s heart fills with joy. He is Yi Seong-mo, an artisan who makes their diving suits. The wetsuits, he proudly notes, provide the divers life-saving protection and assure their livelihood; he has been suiting up the hardy women divers of Jeju with their aquatic armor for more than 40 years.
Yi lives in Seongsan, the first village on the island to greet the rising sun, best viewed from Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), a towering tuff cone that rose from the sea in a prehistoric volcanic eruption. Inside his workshop Sora Diving Suits, a set of miniature tewak, an indigenous flotation device still in use by Jeju divers, decorates the wall. There is a row of baskets at one corner, each labeled with the name of a village and containing sheets recording wetsuit sizes and body measurements of the village’s divers. One of the rooms is strewn with black and orange rubber fabrics and completed wetsuits on hangers await their owners.
Yi’s workshop is always drenched in a peculiar smell since rubber wetsuits are bonded with a special adhesive rather than sewn with thread. Though he has to keep the windows open for ventilation even in winter, the smell gives him a feeling of warmth as he works. The workshop sees a steady flow of female divers in their 50s up to their 80s coming to have their suits repaired, get their measurements taken, or pick up their new suits. The walls reverberate with their laughter and boisterous conversations. On the day of this interview, the artisan was especially busy because they were going to have a group dive the next day.
“It’s too loose in the neck. Water leaked in,” said a woman from Seongsan-ri. Yi jumped to work with his scissors. The problem was perfectly solved through what looked like a simple workaround involving some cutting and bonding. With such splendid scissor work, he should be called Mr. MacGyver, who can fix anything. With the inscription last year of the Culture of Jeju Haenyeo on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, financial support from the local government has expanded, resulting in increased workload for the artisan.

Hanging on racks in a corner of Yi’s workshop are wetsuits awaiting their owners. They are made with artisanship reinforced by his belief that “wetsuits for haenyeo must be a million times more perfect than any athletic wear.”

Husband and Son of Haenyeo
Yi Seong-mo explains what drives his dedication to his craft: “It is my duty to be perfect. If the wetsuit is even slightly bigger, or has the smallest break, water will leak in, which must be frustrating to the diver. Imagine your body wet on a cold day. Diving in the sea to harvest seafood is a life-risking job. It would be a crime for me to make a mistake. The divers of Jeju are so committed to their work that they don’t come out of the water even when their wetsuits are leaky. They usually work for five hours at a time.” He adds, “Furthermore, every one of the elderly divers is like a mother to me, so I must take the utmost care for them.”
Could it be destiny? The man who has been making haenyeo’s diving suits as his life’s work is the son and husband of a haenyeo. His mother Han Yang-chun was a veteran upper-level diver (divers are classified into three groups based on their skill levels: upper, middle, and lower) from Bomok-ri, Seogwipo. His wife Kim In-sim was also a diver from Udo, a small nearby island, who could not make a living without going out to the sea. When she was only six, her grandmother forcefully submerged her head in a water bucket to teach her how to dive. She was a child diver who had to take early leave from school to go to the sea on group diving days. Her own mother, who passed away at 97, was an upper-level haenyeo who had gone to China for diving and spoke fluent Chinese. ‘Brand Name’ Diving Suits “His suits are the best. They fit snugly and look stylish. It is great that we can have such nice and comfortable wetsuits. Better yet, we can have them mended whenever necessary. That’s why you should buy brand name products,” says Ko Yeoung-il, a diver who had just come into the workshop. To the haenyeo of Jeju, Yi Seong-mo’s wetsuits are known as “brand name” apparel.
Calling him André Lee, after the late Korean fashion designer André Kim, elderly divers are voluble in praising his work.

“His wetsuits are so warm and soft. He treats us old folks so kindly that we are always grateful to him,” says 88-year-old Oh Sun-a, the oldest customer of the workshop. She cannot go out to the sea without wearing her 5mm-thick outfit from Sora Diving Suits. Yi Seong-mo adds, “For one who’s had her hip and knees replaced, she collected a great amount of conches the other day. How amazing she is!”
Yi’s golden rule for work is that he must know the haenyeo community very well to make good diving suits for them. Accordingly, he tries to figure out the thinking of each of those women, who in turn have given him life lessons. However, the longer he does the job, the more difficult he finds it. As for the matter of how the wetsuit should fit, for instance, elderly divers always ask him to make them a bit larger. This is their habitual preference that originated from the time when they had to make do with only one diving suit all year round and had trouble with it fitting tighter in summer than in winter. “Sometimes, I made mistakes by just following their requests. Wearing their new wetsuits tailored a bit larger for the first time on a cold day, they would find them excessively loose. On the whole, negotiating what my clients want with what I know from experience is the hard part,” notes Yi.
Still, he thinks he must be considerate of each of the haenyeo. He explains, “Unlike ordinary clothes, wetsuits are prone to wear out in particular places. If snagged on a hoe or other tools, the frayed spots are easily torn open. The diving suits are made of imported Neoprene fabrics which are soft and warm. The divers are working under better circumstances now because the local government pays for their wetsuits, but in the old days with no such benefit, they repeatedly patched up the holes to save on expenses.” Yi goes on to say, “I do not let out a word of complaint whenever they ask me to mend their suits. This is a rule of my work. I don’t let money motivate me and I try to be consistent. To fussy clients, I offer kind words and the gift of a cap or something. So, a large number of haenyeo in every village have come to treat me like a son, always trying to give me stuff.”
Before rubber wetsuits were introduced to the island in the mid-1970s, the divers used to work in an underwear- like outfit made of thin cotton (called sokgot, murot, or sojunggi) in all seasons of the year. In winter, as soon as they came out of the water, their skin would be swollen red or turn black all over.

The Advent of Rubber Wetsuits
Rubber wetsuits were an amazing discovery for the haenyeo and their arrival in Jeju a turning point in the life of Yi Seong-mo. They were introduced by his wife’s acquaintance, a Japanese-Korean from Jeju living in Ulsan, who asked her to sell them to the islanders.
Yi recalls: “At first, many people were disapproving when a few divers waded in and out of the sea in a rubber wetsuit. They objected to it, not thinking they would also come to be wearing one. It was like that for a couple of years. Only a small number of people with enough money chose to wear it. With time, however, more people realized that the rubber suit’s thermal protection enabled the wearer to work underwater for hours on end. Then people started to buy the wetsuits, even though it was a considerable financial burden to some.”
“People who could not afford to buy it would fret themselves sick,” Ko Yeong-il adds, explaining that she got to buy her first rubber suit by selling her knitting loom, which she had used for a side job, and adding another 30,000 won. Her sister had to get a loan to buy hers.
Yi, who was farming mandarin oranges in his hometown Bomokri in his 20s, saw potential in the business. He started a wetsuitmaking shop with a partner, but after twists and turns, he decided to strike out on his own.
He imported the fabrics from Japan and invited a technician who would teach him about designing and tailoring wetsuits. But that was not sufficient. He recalls, “I repeatedly measured my customers and studied their physiques and diving patterns to finely adjust the shape and size of their wetsuits so that they would fit better.” The price of a suit, which was at first 35,000 won, now comes to 320,000 won.
Most of today’s haenyeo have three rubber suits — the thickest one for winter, the medium one for conch harvesting in autumn, and the thinnest one for summer. Since the sea has seasonal changes in temperature, the thickness of the fabrics that Yi uses ranges from 2 to 10 millimeters.

All of Them His Family
In 2007, his workshop was destroyed in a fire. A large number of completed outfits, which were ready for delivery, turned into ashes. “I was so worried for the divers who needed the suits to pass the winter, but they found out about the accident and told me it was okay if they had to wait. I owed so much to them,” recounts the artisan.
Ultimately, all the divers are like family to him. He knows how the physique of each ajimang (a Jeju Island dialect word for “lady”) has changed with age — how bent her back has become, how much weight she has lost. When one of them calls him with a problem, say in her cap, he travels long distances to personally deliver a new one.
“Knowing how much trouble she will have to go through, I cannot help going to her,” Yi says.

Until the mid-1970s, the female divers of Jeju used to work in the sea, even in winter, in underwearlike outfits made of thin cotton. Yi Seong-mo, who believes that his wetsuits are indispensable for their life-saving protection as well as their livelihood, has been providing the island’s divers with their aquatic armor for more than 40 years.

His workshop gets busiest in September, just before cold weather arrives on the island, when there is a surge in requests for repairs. “I must visit those who have outgrown their wetsuits. I feel a sense of duty because if I do nothing for their suits they will ruin their dive. And I’m also afraid they might go into the sea in an illfitting or leaky suit and catch a cold. They are the kind of people who will seldom miss a day of work even when they are sick.”
The divers who wear his wetsuits are not limited to those living in Seogwipo. He has over 1,500 clients, including those living along the coast and on the islands of the Jeolla provinces and those going to dive in Japan. He goes anywhere to take measurements, even to an island with only one client. Unlike regular clothes, wetsuits require more than 20 parts of the body to be precisely measured.
Traveling to take measurements, he came across an unforgettable person, a haenyeo in her 80s whom he met a few years ago in Gangjeong, on the southern coast of Jeju Island. He describes their encounter: “She was an elderly woman walking with a cane. She walked at the tail end of the group lest some younger divers try to dissuade her from going out to sea. A strong wind was blowing. I said it would have been better for her to stay home on such a cold day. She told me that she goes out because she missed people, because she was so lonely.”
A couple of hours later, he heard the sad news about her death. Her legs were stuck between rocks underwater.
To Yi Seong-mo, no one can match the women divers of Jeju Island in their diligence. They pay for household expenses with the money earned by diving and save the profits from farming oranges. He is always touched by the stories of elderly divers in their 70s or even older who risk their lives working underwater and willingly spend their meager income for their children. “Never depend on others. Have your own bank account. Those are the rules strictly observed by those women. Until death, they never stop giving,” he says.

All the divers are like family to him. He knows how the physique of each ajimang (a Jeju Island dialect word for “lady”) has changed with age — how bent her back has become, how much weight she has lost. When one of them calls him with a problem, say in her cap, he travels long distances to personally deliver a new one.

Survival of the Haenyeo and their Outfits
One can see that Yi is as diligent as the divers he serves. In busy seasons, he makes as many as six to ten wetsuits a day, working from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. This year, there has been a considerable increase in order volume, causing him to wake up in the middle of the night worried about delays. He works with an assistant during the day and with his wife, now retired from diving, at night.
A serious issue in his mind is how to keep the tradition of his craft alive. Just as the number of haenyeo has declined by about 100 divers each year, it is hard to find young people who could be groomed as artisans making their diving outfits. “I just made up my mind to keep working for as long as I can, as I am indebted to the divers for my lifelong livelihood,” Yi says.

Heo Young-sun Poet
Lee Han-koo Photographer

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