The furoshiki is a perfectly engineered piece of Japanese design. Sure, to the lazy eye it’s a sheet of fabric, but it’s far more than that. It’s an art, a craft, a useful everyday object, and a piece of traditional Japanese history.
The furoshiki can be whatever you need it to be. In fact in even just the tiniest way, it could be a very eco-friendly solution to our contemporary plastic problem.
So what is a furoshiki, how do you use it, where do you buy it, and what has it got to do with bathing lords? Here is everything you need to know about this multifaceted Japanese wonder.
1. What are Furoshiki, and Where Did They Come From?
One of Japan's most historically significant everyday accessories, the furoshiki's history is one that goes back over 1,200 years.
Today’s furoshiki cloth was initially called a tsutsumi, meaning wrapping, and was first used during the Nara Period (710-794) as cloth protection for the precious items often found in Japanese temples.
Sometime during the Heian period (794-1185), its role changed a little; it became a cloth to wrap clothes. But it was during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) that it came to be the rugged, useful cloth we know today, thanks in large part to a bunch of onsen-going lords who didn't want to get their clothes all mixed up.
Around 600 years ago, Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga constructed a bathhouse in Kyoto, and he invited other high ranking folks from around the area to come and join him. As a way to ensure that no lord accidentally swapped kimonos with someone else, many of Ashikaga's visitors packed their belongings in furoshiki cloth decorated with their family crest; this is where furoshiki got its name, which is formed from the characters furo 風呂, bath, and shiki 敷, meaning spread.
As is the case with many trends, the use spread to the public, and it wasn't too long before everyone had to get their hands on a furoshiki, which people used to transport all types of things: from carrying food and shopping to transporting tools, delicate items, and gifts, or even to use as general-purpose bags.
2. Furoshiki vs Tenugui, What's the Difference?
Essentially they’re both multi-purpose pieces of cloth, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty there are a few key differences between furoshiki and tenugui, and these differences mostly have to do with functionality and the item’s purpose.
Tenugui are a little thinner; they’re made from easy to dry cotton because, as their name suggests (te 手, hand, and nugu 拭, wipe) their main reason for existence is for personal uses like drying hands, and wiping away sweat. Tenugui are a little smaller too, like a slightly narrower version of your regular dishcloth. Because they’re made for more personal uses, and not necessarily for show, the edges of tenugui typically aren’t stitched. There’s no real reason to add a hem other than the aesthetic, so it’s usually left raw. Find out more about tenugui here: What is a Tenugui?
A furoshiki, on the other hand, is the showier of the pair. Because it's often used as gift wrapping, or for carrying around larger, bulkier items - that people may see - the aesthetics are a little more considered. Furoshiki can be made from more expensive materials such as silk, and often feature beautiful and elaborate hand-painted designs, so that they are often used as artistic wall hangings.
The edges of a furoshiki cloth are typically hemmed to prevent fraying. This stitching is not just for show, it’s also because in its regular daily use, the furoshiki may be exposed to rougher settings. A furoshiki is used for things like carrying loads of books or protecting a tall glass sake bottle on its journey to a picnic in the park. As mentioned, the furoshiki was originally used in onsen culture, so to successfully transport larger items like clothes and washing products, the size of the furoshiki has become a little larger too.
3. What are Furoshiki Made Of?
Japanese furoshiki can be made of so many different types of fabric, depending on what you want to use it for! Silk, cotton, rayon, nylon, canvas, or other Japanese fabrics are all often used. Essentially the only real rule is that if it can be folded and used like a furoshiki, it is one!
Silk is for top-end items. They make great shawls, and wall art because of their lustrous color and comforting texture. They’re also perfect as a gift wrapping cloth for a very expensive gift, perhaps for a unique occasion. Japanese silk is often silk crepe, so it feels a little rougher to the touch than smooth untextured silk.
Cotton is the most versatile of all the materials. Japanese cotton is of very high quality and soft to the touch, meaning that cotton furoshiki can be used as wrapping, bags shawls, art, or any other number of uses. In addition, they are much easier to clean than silk, and will last longer. And of course, cotton is much more affortable than silk.
Rayon is for those who absolutely must have the texture of silk, but on a tighter budget. Slightly more durable than silk, rayon still does not take too kindly to water, so its best to use for gift wrapping.
Polyester is ideal for gift wrapping when you don’t want the wrapping to cost more than the gift. Easy to wash, polyester also has the advantage that it can carry very bright and bold colors. Polyester is also useful for a furoshiki bag as it’s water-resistant and easy to clean.
4. How to Use Furoshiki?
Beyond the more historical uses of the furoshiki, there are plenty of modern-day uses for such an item. Back in 2006, Tokyo department store Printemps Ginza Co. held a furoshiki fair in celebration of the furoshiki and its uses as a Japanese traditional wrapping cloth, which has contributed to its popularity today. A news report on the event claimed that “Before the fair, only about ten furoshiki were purchased per month. During the two-week event, however, 800 were sold, and since then the store is moving around 50 a month.”
The event showcased that in this day and age of designer handbags, fancy backpacks, and ubiquitous totes, the usefulness of the furoshiki had been forgotten.
The most popular modern day uses for Japanese furoshiki include: packing bento lunch boxes and protecting them from spilling open; wrapping gifts; transporting glass, ceramic or fragile goods. Particularly fine patterns can be hung on the wall as art, or worn over the shoulders as a shawl. Furoshiki bags can come in all shapes and sizes. They can also be easily used as a tablecloth, or a picnic hamper for your next hanami picnic. In an emergency a furoshiki also makes a great sling or temporary bandage! The uses of the furoshiki are limited by only your creativity.
What makes the furoshiki even more valuable in the modern age is its usefulness as a plastic substitute. Rather than purchasing ziplock bags, saran wrap, disposable gift bags, or even collecting plastic bags from the supermarket, the furoshiki can play the role of all of these items, plus they’re washable, reusable, and certainly more aesthetically pleasing. Also, if you use it to wrap a gift, it’s an additional gift in itself! If you’re feeling extra DIY and crafty, or you have some scrap fabric at home you don’t want to throw out, One Million Women, an organization battling climate change, put together a fantastic guide on how to make your own furoshiki and the many ways you can use it.
5. How to Tie Furoshiki?
There are plenty of youtube tutorials out there on furoshiki wrapping techniques and how to best tie a furoshiki bag, even Japan’s queen of clean Marie Kondo uploaded her own version!
From the many other simple videos tutorials available, here are some of our favorites:
How to use furoshiki to wrap a box or a gift, how to wrap a bottle of sake or wine, and how to create your own furoshiki handbag!
How do you use furoshiki? Let us know in the comments below!