Japanese love to puzzle about how to make simple things elegant. Everyone knows about Origami, but there is also wrapping cloth or Furoshiki, which can be described as the textile version of Origami.
I have been exploring creative ways of using these square pieces of fabric over the past few weeks.
This beautiful furoshiki was hand-dyed onto linen by Saratetsu in Tokyo using a stencil with a vintage butterfly motif. I have previously blogged and posted on Youtube about the story of furoshiki stencil-dyeing, but I want to explain in this blog about its history, tradition, and uses.
Wrapping cloth known as Tsutsumi have been mentioned in writings from as far back as the 8th Century AD. One reference is to a cloth wrapped around an imperial costume stored in the Todaiji Shosoin Imperial Repository in Nara. So the practice of wrapping things for storage has been taking place in Japan for more than 1300 years.
And it was not that long ago that these simple but versatile cloths were part of everyday Japanese life. They were used to carry or store away practically anything. Even children wrapped their books in furoshiki to go to school.
Using furoshiki for carrying personal items fell out of fashion in post-World War II Japan when owning a Western-style bag became fashionable. At around the same time, Japanese department stores started giving paper bags to customers to carry their purchases. I remember when I was a young girl enjoying the status symbol feeling of carrying a paper bag from a major department store such as Isetan.
Despite the waxing and waning of fashion fads, if furoshiki did not efficiently serve its purpose, how could it have survived for more than a millennium? As I explored and experimented in different ways to using a furoshiki, I discovered many advantages of using this benign piece of square cloth.
First, they are flexible. They only become as big as what you carry in it. Secondly, they are easy to clean. If you’re coming home from the beach carrying a sandy towel, all you have to do is to dust it off. Moreover, if you are giving away or returning the content, you can fold it away after use. This is especially useful when you are taking a bottle of wine to a dinner or returning a library book. This adaptable and continuous use of furoshiki makes them economical and environmentally friendly.
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has a wonderful site where they have diagrams of different ways of using a furoshiki. For all you book worms, the hon-tsutsumi, or the ‘two books carry wrap’ is especially intriguing and my favorite. Next time you go on a picnic, maybe you’ll be inspired to take your lunch or favorite books in a furoshiki. Now that would be a fashion statement for the ages.