There are many gift wrapping traditions out there but, we must confess, one of our favorites has to be furoshiki, the Japanese practice of wrapping gifts with cloth.
We first encountered this practice in a marvelous little shop in Kyoto, waiting perhaps a moment or two more than we might otherwise have done had our parcels been hurriedly dropped in a paper bag, but, by golly, was it worth it! Indeed, there’s a Slow Food movement - perhaps we can start a Slow Shopping or Slow Wrapping movement too, returning this kind of elegance to one’s purchasing experience? But, maybe we are giving the wrong impression. Although the wrapping process might have taken a moment longer, we were amazed at how expeditiously our parcels were in fact wrapped, especially given the resulting effect. And, we were so entranced, watching the shopkeeper executing well-practiced folds and knots that it actually seemed like time flew by quicker than usual!
Recently, we’ve been researching a bit more about this wonderful tradition and are trying to self-teach ourselves some of the basic techniques and folds in order to expand our gift wrapping repertoire. We thought we’d pass along a few highlights of what we’ve learned so far.
So when did the tradition of furoshiki get underway? We consulted Kunio Ekiguchi’s book, Gift Wrapping: Creative Ideas from Japan, and Etsuko Yamada’s Wrapping with Fabric: Your Complete Guide to Furoshiki the Japanese Art of Wrapping, gleaning several things:
“Furo” translates as “bath” while “shiki” means “rug” or “mat.” Early Japanese baths were apparently akin to steam baths and bathers would wear white kimonos in lightweight cotton. A bather would spread out their furoshiki on the ground, standing on it to undress and change into their robe. The furoshiki was then temporarily used to store their street clothing. At the conclusion of their bath, the bather would spread out their furoshiki again, donning their outdoor apparel, and wrapping their wet kimono in the furoshiki to be toted home.
The word “furoshiki” is believed to have come into common usage sometime between 1688 and 1710, but the practice of using cloth to wrap and carry items - be it scrolls, or bundles of clothes – has a long history in Japan, a history that predates the introduction of this relatively modern term by hundreds of years.
Originally, furoshiki were made of whatever material happened to be on hand, with emphasis placed on a fabric’s knotability. It is believed that the fabric selection process was more formalized in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867). The cloths used in this period were generally dyed a deep blue-violet or indigo color and frequently decorated with family crests or shop logos.
Today, commercially produced furoshiki are made in squares of varying sizes. Early furoshiki, however, were often cut from rolls of kimono fabric and, as a result, the cloths were slightly taller than they were wide. The edges were then sewn to prevent fraying. Furoshiki sizing is done with references to the “haba” – in English, “width” or “breadth.”
There are roughly ten sizes, ranging from “chu-haba,” to “itsu-haba.” In times past, rolls of fabric were made in widths of hito-haba (1 haba or about 14in/36cm). Furoshiki sizes larger than this would be made by sewing together hito-haba pieces. Today, it is possible to make much larger pieces of fabric so it is possible to produce furoshiki as large as yo-haba (4 haba) from a single piece of cloth. Itsu-haba (5 haba) and larger sizes are still made by sewing cloth together.
Directionality of wrapping matters. For example, when wrapping in an envelope pattern for a funeral, one pulls the right corner over first – for celebratory events, the left corner comes over first.
The pattern and colors of a furoshiki cloth often convey meaning – for example, Ms. Yamada writes that, “a clam shell [pattern] is a symbol of marital harmony, because its two halves match only each other.” A lovely metaphor, no? Other symbolic patterns include tortoises (“a symbol of long life”), and leaves blowing in the wind (“stands for gathering happiness”). In terms of color, brightly colored fabrics are generally used for celebrations, while somber colors are preferred for funerals or sad events.
Furoshiki has several benefits when compared with paper wrapping – first off, it’s reusable, so there may be a larger upfront cost but over a period of time, one might actually save money. Second, if you wrap at a slant, fabric on the bias has some stretch to it, making it more accommodating than paper (we’ve ripped wrapping paper on awkwardly angled gifts more times than we’d like to count). Third, as long as your piece of cloth is large enough, oddly shaped gifts do not present a problem. And, fourth – last but not least – should you be transporting your gifts, it’s possible to incorporate a handy dandy handle into your furoshiki design, making your gift marvelously portable.
If you are interested in exploring the tradition of furoshiki, we found Ms. Yamada’s book to be a good introduction to the subject. She covers a wide range of furoshiki methods, including step-by-step instructions illustrated with color photos. She touches on both the history and etiquette of furoshiki, both of which we found very interesting. Included above are only a few highlights from among the information we gleaned - the book goes into greater depth.
Another book that focuses entirely on furoshiki is Furoshiki Fabric Wraps by the Pixeladies. This book also has a wide range of designs and each design is accompanied by instructions illustrated with diagrams and a photograph showing the completed effect. This book focuses less on history and cultural context, but there are more ideas for folks looking to make their own furoshiki cloths (including rough measurements for commonly wrapped items, details on how to hem or edge your fabric squares and ideas for decorating fabric). As well, tear out cards are included at the back of the book that can be used for quick, instructional reference.
For a look at Japanese gift wrapping more generally (but including furoshiki), we recommend Ms. Ekiguchi’s book which contains fewer instructions for furoshiki techniques, but compensates by including guidance on making boxes and wrapping with paper. Ms. Ekiguchi also includes some historical and cultural context for furoshiki – as well as other Japanese gift wrapping traditions that we found similarly fascinating.
Well, that’s a little summary of what we’ve learned so far about furoshiki. Whether you are an expert, or a fellow newcomer, please do weigh in with your thoughts, questions, insight and/or furoshiki tips. We’re always keen to hear from those more experienced than us – and to help find answers to folks’ questions, especially as we invariably learn something along the way too!
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