What is a Japanese Tenugui?
At first glance, a Japanese Tenugui towel is just the same as a simple hand towel in Western culture. However, this is a common misconception. A Japanese Tenugui is a highly versatile object with huge significance in Japanese culture, and the role it plays varies greatly, from simple hand towel to symbol of hard work and determination.
What Is a Japanese Tenugui Towel?
A Tenugui is a piece of cloth with a variety of uses. They tend to be approximately 90cm long and 35cm wide; however, there are no specific dimensions to which they must adhere. Tenugui are made from a cotton weave and have a whole variety of designs printed on them. Some popular designs include cats, cherry blossom and koi carp, but the options are limitless. Tenugui also have raw frayed edges, so that they may be easily ripped to be used as a temporary bandage should it be required.
History of the Japanese Tenugui
The earliest records of Tenugui towels come from as far back as the Kofun era (250 – 538AD), and they have fulfilled various roles throughout their expansive history. They were used in Shinto rituals during the Heian era (794 – 1192), although cloth was a scarce commodity at the time. It wasn’t until around the Kamakura era (1185 – 1333) when Samurai came to line their helmets with them that their use became widespread.
Initially, Japanese Tenugui were low-key in terms of colours and design. They were seen as purely functional and used to cover, wipe or wrap objects for one purpose or another. When cotton became more readily available and thus accessible to everyday people, Tenugui towels came to be seen as a necessary item to have in the home.
Dyeing Tenugui – Traditional Chusen Method
The traditional method of dyeing the cotton used for Tenugui is a traditional Japanese craft that survives to this day. There are many distinctive features to this dyeing process, which allows for reversible designs with various characters and prints.
Ten steps are involved, beginning with the creation of a stencil (katagami) from smoked handmade paper containing special tannins. The design is drawn on, and silk netting is attached to complete the stencil. The fabric is then prepared for the application of dye, which is made from a paste of powdered rice and rice bran, or alternatively seaweed. The dye is then applied to the cloth with the stencil and left to dry.
Uses of Japanese Tenugui Towels
Tenugui towels have a wide range of uses, and although their usage has declined in recent years, many households still find them to be an invaluable item to have around. Some common uses of Tenugui in modern times include:
- Part of a costume during a festival or matsuri
- A sign of gratitude, distributed by new business owners to thank people for their custom
- When worn as a headband, Tenugui is a symbol of hard work and determination. Of course, there is also the practical element of keeping sweat out of the wearer’s eyes during strenuous activity!
- Gift wrapping – wrapping a gift in a Tenugui is intended to enhance its overall effect on the recipient. It shows that the gift giver has good taste as well as respect and affection for the person on the receiving end.
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