In the Shosoin treasure house of the Todai-Ji Temple in Nara is the oldest piece of Japanese wrapping cloth. The practice of wrapping objects in Japan traces back to the Nara period (710 to 794) – during this time, the cloth that an object was wrapped in was referred to as tsutsumi, meaning “package” or “present.” The wrapping cloths are now known as furoshiki. In them are placed gifts, food, or other objects that need to be transported, enveloped in cloth which is tied and neatly knotted.
Originating in the Muromachi period (1136 to 1573), the name furoshiki comes from two different words, “furo,” meaning bath, and “shiki,” to spread. It is said that there was a shogun during this era who had a large bathhouse in his residence and invited feudal lords to stay, who would wrap their kimonos in furoshiki cloth as they bathed. Many stood on the fabrics while drying after bathing, hence the translation of the word “bath spread.” Monograms were often marked on the cloths, so that they were easily recognisable when the bathers emerged from the steamy water.
It was in the Edo period (1603 to 1867), that the custom of wrapping items in this way began to be widely used by the general public for gifts, books and food. Many 19th and early 20th century woodblock prints depict scenes of furoshiki being used in daily life, with tradesmen and travellers carrying bundles filled with an array of items. Today, we consider furoshiki cloths to be a wonderful thoughtful alternative to other wrapping methods, whether you invest in special fabrics or reuse existing textiles in your home.
Linen was typically used for the very first furoshiki cloths, and the contents of the parcels was often inscribed on the fabric in ink. Many different fabrics can be used, and cotton is a lightweight, durable alternative, lending itself to intricate patterns, while silk lends itself to more formal occasions. Handkerchiefs, bandanas and fabric offcuts can make good furoshiki cloths, and you may wish to think about how the pattern or fabric complements the contents within.
Using cloth to wrap objects is common to many cultures, tracing back thousands of years. Korean bojagi cloths are often embroidered, known as subo, or patchworked, known as jogakbo. In Korean folk tradition, it was considered that it was good luck to wrap something, and the earliest surviving examples of bojagi, from the early Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), were used for covering Buddhist sutras or as tablecloths for special events. In Ancient Egypt, beeswax-coated wraps were used to cover and preserve food.
Furoshiki artefacts are highly valued and held in museums around the world; the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is home to a selection of Edo-period woodblock prints depicting items wrapped in furoshiki, attributed to Ryuryukyo Shinsai and Kubo Shunman. In one by the latter artist, incense boxes are wrapped in a cloth patterned with plum blossom, thought to represent spring. In the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, blossom also patterns a Japanese wrapping cloth which was resist-dyed and painted in Yonezawa, Yamagata, between 1800 and 1950.
Once you have decided on a patterned or plain furoshiki cloth, there are many different ways to tie them, from the simple to more elaborate. You may find yourself covering your lunchbox with a simple checked cloth in the mornings, finding a serene moment in your routine. Perhaps the most reflective moments are those spent wrapping gifts for loved ones, when more time can be taken and new knots can be tried. During the festive season, we find time to make gifts from what we have close to hand, anticipating the joy of giving thoughtful parcels wrapped in materials that can be used and enjoyed for years to come – whether to be gifted on to others, worn as neckerchiefs or framed on the wall.
Words by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by India Hobson.