Furoshiki, traditional Japanese fabric wrapping cloths, have an interesting origin dating back many hundreds of years.
And yet they're still common in Japan today and finding popularity in the West too because of its use as a replacement for single use wrapping paper.
What is a furoshiki?
At its most basic, a furoshiki is a square of cloth that can be used for wrapping gifts, storing precious items and carrying day to day things such as a bento lunchbox, a wine bottle, shopping or books.
This is a basic description because when you see real Japanese furoshiki you realise what beautiful fabrics they are made from with gorgeous designs, as delicate and colourful as kimono.
They can be made from many types of fabric including silk for really high end ones, and cotton or rayon for more affordable options. Essentially you need to be able to tie and fold the fabric easily and for it not to be too easily damaged so the fabric's weight and quality is important.
Common sizes for furoshiki are a smaller 45cm or 50cm square and a larger 70cm square. These are convenient sizes for most uses but you can get bigger ones too at 100cm square or larger.
The history of furoshiki in Japan
Japanese people have been wrapping their valuables in cloth since at least the seventh century Nara period. But the word ‘furoshiki’ was not used until later and surprisingly came with the increased popularity of public baths from the 12th century onwards.
The Japanese word for ‘bath’ is ‘furo’ and the direct translation of the word ‘furoshiki’ is ‘bath spread’. At that time, the furoshiki was a square of cloth to wrap your clothes in while bathing and you could wipe your feet with it and stand on it while getting dressed afterwards.
This is, of course, a convenient way of keeping your clothes clean, protected and distinct from other people’s (don’t forget these are communal baths) and so the idea of wrapping and carrying your valuables in cloth spread away from the bath house to other everyday uses and the word ‘furoshiki’ stuck to this very day.
How are furoshiki used?
A furoshiki is a decorative and really useful piece of cloth! If you carry one with you, it can quickly be tied into a handy bag should you find yourself having to carry something unexpectedly. And now that we are trying to reduce the number of plastic bags we use and shops don’t always offer you one with a purchase, it can save you having to buy a canvas or other reusable bag.
You can find many videos online showing how you can tie your furoshiki into a tote bag, a pretty handbag or even a backpack. Some bags can make use of a pre-made handle adding to the decorative look and making the cloth even more like a regular bag.
In Japan, a common use for furoshiki today is as pretty cloth bag to carry your bento. Working people and school children in Japan often take their own packed lunch lovingly prepared and presented in a bento box.
The furoshiki cloth is cleverly and carefully wrapped around the lunch box and tied at the top to form a carrying handle. What a beautiful way to dress up something so simple!
Probably the most famous way of using furoshiki is to wrap a gift. There is a great tradition of gift giving in Japan and small gifts are given as a way of saying thank you for a favour, to work colleagues who have worked hard or to honour your host at a party.
Almost anything can be wrapped in a furoshiki, including wine bottles, and there are many ingenious and beautiful ways to make your gift look special. Furoshiki are usually very beautiful, with gorgeous designs and lovely fabric. They may even be heirlooms so when you receive a gift wrapped in a furoshiki, you must graciously accept it, unwrap it and then return the cloth to the giver.
Furoshiki in the West
Furoshiki wrapping cloths have started to become more common and talked about in Western society as an alternative to single use paper or plastic bags. They are also good for replacing wrapping paper which often goes straight in the bin after being used and, if it’s metallic, glossy or too glittery can’t be recycled. This is important as we all try to cut waste and live more sustainably.
However, the beautiful Japanese designs and quality of fabric also mean that furoshiki would not look out of place being used as a hair wrap or scarf.
Furoshiki in Europe and the US are still a bit of a statement piece, fashion or otherwise. However, it would be nice if we could become more accustomed to using these functional items that look lovely but are also meant to last many years, maybe a lifetime, and become more precious with use and age.