There are many cultural tools that have taken root in the everyday lives of Japanese people. Here I will introduce one, the “Tenugui“ -- which means “hand-wipe”. There are a variety of uses for the Tenugui, not only as a towel to wipe your hands as the name implies, but also for wrapping items or displaying as a tapestry. This time I will report the history of Tenugui. Furthermore, I went to the Tenugui specialty shop “Kamawanu” and deeply researched the intricacies of Tenugui. I will also present some Tenugui wrapping methods in a video, so be sure to take a look for some useful everyday tips and tricks!
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Japanese Tenugui culture dates back to the Heian Period (more than 1,500 years ago).
Are you familiar with the “Tenugui”, an item used in Japanese daily life since ancient times? It is a piece of woven cotton cloth in a unique rectangular shape, usually measuring around 90cm x 33cm.
Their thinness and manipulability makes them versatile
Nowadays, the Tenugui is very popular among young people in their twenties too, thanks to their greatly varied designs. However, when traced back the Tenugui is an item deeply rooted in Japanese culture with descriptions of it being used as long ago as the Heian period. In general, it was used as a towel to wipe your hands or body, as the name implies. Since Tenugui are made with a thin and maneuverable material, they were also used to wipe Buddha statues.
Japanese Tenugui used from ancient times (photo: Kamawanu)
As the Edo period ended and the Meiji period began, western influence swept across Japan and brought with it towels and handkerchiefs. Gradually, these came to replace the Tenugui. The tenugui was a multipurpose tool that could serve the functions of wiping, tying, and wrapping all in one, but that made it all the more susceptible to being replaced by more specialized tools. Towels took over wiping the body, handkerchiefs took over wiping the hands, and thicker rags took over home cleaning.
However, after the passage of time through the Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei and now the Reiwa eras, people are gradually reevaluating the versatility of the Tenugui, which was commonly used until the Edo period.
If you took a moment to look at the Tenugui and its uses, you might just be convinced to make it a part of your everyday life!
What can you do with a Tenugui?
What can you do with a Tenugui?
The Tenugui is often described as an all-in-one tool, but how can it actually be utilized? I will introduce just some of the uses.
■Wiping and cleaning
The Tenugui’s fundamental use is to wipe. You can wipe your hands, your body, or wrap it around your neck to absorb perspiration. Since this is a simple piece of woven cotton cloth, even when it absorbs moisture it will immediately dry.
■Wrapping and Packing
You can wrap around the bottom of a cup containing hot water making it easier to handle, or wrap jars or a lunch box. The thinness and manipulability of the Tenugui allows it to be very versatile in wrapping things. In addition, you can wrap Tenugui around a pillow and use it as a pillow case, or wrap a plastic bottle to avoid water drops.
If you place a Tenugui on your knee, it can be used as a napkin to catch dropped food. If you hang it around your neck, you can use it as an apron. This can be a life-saver during a child’s meal time! If you hang it on a computer or mirror, it will protect it from dust too.
You can use a Tenugui for its visual appeal. If you cut and sew it together, you can make a small bag or a purse.
Using a Tenugui as a gift focuses on design, not its function. Tenugui is a great item for a wedding gift or as a greeting present. A great gift is to present Tenugui with an auspicious, classic pattern such as “seigaiha” (a pattern of waves in blue ocean) or hemp leaves.
This is another usage focusing on a Tenugui’s design. I recommend to put it in a frame and decorate or attach the Tenugui to a pole and hang it like a tapestry, if you find your favorite design.
Learn about the Tenugui’s intricacies & processes at Tenugui specialty store “Kamawanu”
These days, Tenugui has been attracting a lot of attention from young people in their 20s and visitors from foreign countries. It is partially because of the Tenugui’s practical uses, but also because there are so many charming designs.
This time I visited the Tenugui specialty store Kamawanu, which has been making modern Tenugui in Daikanyama, Tokyo for 33 years. Kamawanu collaborates with several companies and regions to produce a variety of Tenugui. Upon my visit, I have asked the owners of the store: what is it they find beautiful about the cultural tool that is the Tenugui, and what sentimental process occurs in their designing?
Tenugui Brand "Kamawanu"
Tenugui is an item best-fitted for the Japanese lifestyle
Tenugui brand Kamawanu’s head office is in Daikanyama with four other stores in central Tokyo and one store in Aichi Prefecture. This famous Tenugui brand is representative of Japanese culture and offers a variety of Tenugui from traditional patterns to cute modern designs.
Display of various Tenugui (Kamawanu Daikanyama head office)
Chief retail planner Mr.Akiba told me about when the Kamawanu brand was established.
“At the time when we established the head office in Daikanyama, Tenugui were not used in general daily life. Even though today, the Tenugui is gradually becoming recognized by visitors from foreign countries and young people, at that time it was just used in limited occasions like festivals.”
Even given its lack of recognition at the time, Kamawanu kept striving to inherit the culture of Tenugui. This was because the founders held the strong belief that the Tenugui was a truly practical everyday tool
Tenugui with Choju-giga (animal imitation) design
"Tenugui is so suitable for Japan’s climate and culture. It is just a piece of woven cotton cloth with cut ends, so it is quick drying even in muggy, humid Japan. It is not the same as a towel or handkerchief because there is no sewing on the ends so the moisture does not stop at the end. Other than that, one of the special features of Tenugui is that you can use it for anything. If you have a Tenugui, you can wipe or wrap anything, which is very suitable for Japanese culture. ” Mr. Akiba said to me.
Originally Tenugui was sold by cutting out of a larger piece. This resulted in loose threads on the edges, and this has remained a staple of the tool
Kamawanu Tenugui are handmade by craftsmen
Kamawanu always has more than 250 designs prepared, all handmade by craftsmen in Japan. I will divide the manufacturing process into 4 parts and report about each one.
■1. Make the paper pattern (katagami) which shows the design
First, the designs made by Kamawanu’s crafters are printed onto a paper pattern. The paper used in this process is called “shibugami” -- Japanese washi paper reinforced by persimmon tannin -- and the pattern printing is done entirely by hand.
This work requires the most time and sometimes it will take close to a month to finish one pattern. This is very delicate process that requires a craftsman’s skill.
Masking with a paper mold (photo courtesy: Kamawanu)
Before shifting to the process of dyeing, the cloth must be patterned using the paper mold. Starch glue is applied over the paper pattern, dividing the parts that are to be dyed, and those that are not.
If the starch is not spread evenly, the quality of the dyeing will be greatly affected, so this procedure is the most important process.
Using a tool called a hera (spatula) and spreading the starch evenly in only one swipe requires skilled craftsmanship. Since the starch`s thickness will change according to the climate or temperature, the craftsmen change the starch’s consistency according to that day’s weather conditions. There are no parameters to measure the consistency of the starch; it is decided entirely by the craftsman’s experience.
The craftsman’s skill and intuition makes for perfect masking (photo: Kamawanu)
After the starch is put evenly on the cloth, next is the dyeing process. The tool being used is called a “yakan”, and looks similar to a watering can with a long slender spout to dye the cloth all at once. The size of the yakan will vary according to the amount of cloth.
Dyeing cloth using a “Yakan” (photo: Kamawanu)
Kamawanu uses a unique method of dyeing called “Chusen”. The dye is poured from above onto the fabric, while it is sucked through the cloth from the bottom using a suction compressor. This method ensures that the dye is distributed evenly to the back side, and the resulting Tenugui is even patterned on the front and back.
“Chusen” has been a traditional dyeing method since the Edo period. Although modern technology allows for color to be dye to be printed on top of the fabric , Kamawanu is trying to preserve the traditional “Chusen” method.
Holding a yakan in each hand for blur dyeing (photo courtesy: Kamawanu)
Besides Chusen dyeing, another type is “sashiwake zome” (sectioned dyeing), used when there are many colors. This method uses a lot of starch and it is necessary to make a small divider to prevent the colors from mixing. On the other hand, when two colors need to be mixed and smudged for aesthetic effect, the craftsman will pour two different dyes from a yakan in each hand.
■4. Sun drying
Washing out starch and extra dye. (photo courtesy: Kamawanu)
After dyeing, the cloth is cleaned with a machine to wash out the starch and extra dye. The cloth is then dried in the sunlight. It differs according to the weather but usually it only takes about one day to completely dry.
Preserving the traditional methods, the final process is sun drying. (photo: Kamawanu)
All of the processes I have explained so far have been conducted on a single, 24 m long piece of fabric. To complete the Tenugui, the cloth is folded and cut into 90 centimeter pieces.
Straightening wrinkles and cut into even lengths. (photo: courtesy Kamawanu)
Creating a variety of designs in a limited space of 33cm × 90cm
You can feel Kamawanu’s dedication to Tenugui from their designs.
The people who design Tenugui are all artists who understand its characteristics from head to toe. These designers are who create many unique patterns, imagining how the colors will come out when the Tenugui is finished, on the limited sized canvas of 33cm X 90cm,
Limited shape colored
■“Standard Tenugui” that you can use all year and “seasonal Tenugui” designed with seasonal themes
There are two main types of designs of Kamawanu’s Tenugui. One of them is the standard Tenugui, which can be used anytime of the year, and the other is Tenugui with seasonal designs that have changing patterns to match the season. Mr. Tajima, the designer, said, “The interesting thing for me is that even if the pattern is the same, the impression will greatly change when the color changes. Even if the pattern is a traditional classic design, if you change the color, the impression of the Tenugui can instantly become modern. ”
From left “fine yellow wheat pattern” “modified Cloisonne” “Okra”
For example, the pictured wheat pattern design originally was made with rows of green wheat. However, when the cloth`s base color changed to yellow and the wheat’s color to brown, the pattern gained a new popularity for evoking the image of beer. This design looks much more like wheat and it is perfect for wrapping a loaf of bread or a can of beer.
On the other hand, Mr. Tajima said “ I am not very aware of trends such as using popular motifs or colors. Instead, I think it is as important that my designs are simple and timeless. That being said the Tenugui is a tool for daily life, so I am also trying to design for what will be appropriate for our modern life.”
One of the reasons Kamawanu is extremely strict about the designs is because a Tenugui is a perfect item for gifts. For example, traditional patterns carry positive meanings that make them great gifts. Mr.Tajima said, “ I would like to make a Tenugui which can be used as a communication tool.”
The reason why Kamawanu’s Tenugui have many fans is because they create modern, refined designs which can be used for personal gifts.
Useful tips & tricks! How to wrap things with a Tenugui.
If you get your own Tenugui, you will definitely want to incorporate it into your daily life. This time I learned two kinds of wrapping from the Kamawanu staff.
How to wrap a baguette.
How to wrap an oval shaped lunch box.
Other kinds of wrapping methods are introduced on Kamawanu’s official YouTube Channel. Go take a look!
The Tenugui: a versatile tool for your everyday life!
According to historical documents, Tenugui was already being used by the Heian period. After the Meiji Restoration, and as Japan’s westernization progressed, Tenugui gradually disappeared from our daily life. Now as we enter the new Reiwa period, why don’t we look back at the good of old Japanese culture again? There certainly will be excellent unique Japanese ideas to help our daily life.