Furoshiki are simple pieces of fabric with a rich history. They were originally used mainly as wrapping cloths, but they’re also enjoyed these days in Japan and abroad for their decorative qualities.
You can call a piece of cloth a furoshiki if it’s square and its edges are all sewn, rather than left unfinished with loose threads. Beyond this basic definition, they come in a range of sizes and are made of various materials, so it’s important to keep this in mind when you shop for a specific purpose.
I only offer cotton furoshiki, as I happen to prefer its look and feel. But there lots of attractive synthetic furoshiki out there, too. Furoshiki are also made of silk, but they can be relatively expensive. Fine silk furoshiki were traditionally used to wrap gifts for auspicious occasions, and I’ve seen some framed as fine art as well.
You can make a furoshiki to wrap something petite like a ring from a fabric square the size of a cocktail napkin. Or on the other end of the size spectrum, you could even turn an old sheet into a large furoshiki if you’re called on to play Santa and need something you can tie off and sling over your shoulder that will hold all the toys when you make your grand entrance. I suppose that as long as it’s not so small that you can’t tie it or so big that you can’t carry what’s in it, you could call it a furoshiki!
The three kanji characters that represent the word furoshiki, 風呂敷, literally mean ‘bath-spread.’ The name came into vogue hundreds of years ago when patrons at public baths started to use wrapping cloths, which were previously known by another name. This explains the ‘furo’ part, as furo means bath.
They were predictably used to wrap and carry clothes in the typical way on such occasions. But ‘shiki’, the verb stem at the end of the name, is a vestige of another use for furoshiki that was novel then and is almost unheard of these days, that of spreading out a furoshiki on a bath house floor to stand on as you change clothes.
Furoshiki like the one above are specifically made for wrapping things and you could indeed use one to carry a change of clothes and sundries to the bath if you were so inclined! This type often have a solid color base such as navy with a simple, traditional motif such as family crests. The cotton is a thin, flat weave and they're appreciably larger than the 50cm x 50cm(19.69" x 19.69") furoshiki that make up the bulk of my selection. I offer these in three motifs and in two sizes. You can find one with a bamboo pattern here.
Until Japan’s post-war reconstruction when disposable bags began to make inroads, furoshiki were still a common sight as a practical way to hold groceries and just about anything else that you could carry. And they were also a common way to present a gift. Nowadays, it’s just as acceptable and much more common to give something such as a box of sweets in the attractive paper bags with handles that confectionaires provide for gift giving.
It seems that furoshiki as wrapping cloths, as a practical, everyday part of life in Japan, have gone the way of the kimono-they’re still used enough to be seen now and then, but rare enough in most contexts that spotting one is a sight to be savored.
And not surprisingly, when you do glimpse someone clutching a gift swathed in a furoshiki, she might well be wearing a kimono, on her way perhaps to a tea ceremony or lesson carrying a token of her esteem and appreciation for her sensei(teacher).
Unlike dressing in a kimono though, wrapping something with a furoshiki is seriously simple, and the most basic wrapping styles are also the ones that happen to be very handy. They’re no more complicated than tying your shoes, and there are lots of helpful videos and websites online to guide you through the basics and beyond.
If you’d like to make furoshiki as wrapping cloths part of your routine, consider trying a simply tied one as a way to carry your lunch if you brown bag it. There are special ‘bento’ lunch boxes available online which are especially well suited to Japanese style meals that include a few different dishes that are separated, including rice, fish, etc. If you’re one of the growing number of people outside Japan who’ve already discovered bento lunch boxes, you’re probably already using a furoshiki with it, as they go hand in hand. But even if you prefer a ham and cheese sandwich, some chips and an apple, you can still use a furoshiki quite naturally and easily.
Furoshiki have come to serve as canvases for an abundance of traditional Japanese art and design elements, and each has stories to tell. The dragon below is no exception, and if you ask him what country he's from he'll point to his toes-Japanese dragons have three toes, in contrast to their Chinese counterparts, which have four or five!
If you do plan on using a furoshiki to wrap something, the important thing is to buy one that’s big enough to not only cover the object but to have enough fabric left over to tie it comfortably. Furoshiki of around 50cm x 50cm(a bit under 20” x 20”) are often a good size for lunch bags and small boxes, but it’s best to check.
If you’re not sure, you can cut any old disused piece of fabric that you happen to have to a certain size and try wrapping something in order to see if buying a furoshiki of that size would work. It’s also a great way to dive into practicing tying techniques.
The old fabric that you use for this test of course will in the process become a sort of de facto furoshiki in its own right, at least as long as you choose to think of it that way!
While you might not want to use that particular fabric for wrapping beyond your practice sessions, you might well find yourself seeing potential furoshiki around the house and elsewhere, fabrics called by other names but just waiting for someone to see them as something else! And if you’re handy, you can even sew the raw edges of fabric you happen to have that you’d like to use as furoshiki.
When I started offering furoshiki along with other items I’d been selling, I focused on larger ones that would typically be used as focal point on a wall or sometimes as tablecloths. But if you check my selection you’ll see that most of my furoshiki are the smaller type that are more suitable for wrapping a lunch or a small present. These are by far my best sellers, and most of that popularity is thanks to people who don’t wrap anything with them at all.
They’re similar in size to ‘fat quarter’ cuts of fabric, and are often used in sampler quilts. Just as there are lots of ways to tie a furoshiki, there are myriad ways to use them in projects and as interior accents. Some celebrate holidays like this one with koinobori carp streamers for Boy's Day:
There are no rules, and most furoshiki bought in Japan these days are also used for display or crafting purposes, and the designs are often produced with these options as well as wrapping, in mind. So there is no need to blush if you get a furoshiki and don’t wrap something up in it.
Finally, I’d add that if you’re not handy with a sewing machine and aren’t interested in a furoshiki bag, you can get lots of enjoyment from using them as room accents just as they are.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Japan was the deeply embedded awareness of the seasons. In the home, this is seen traditionally in the flower arrangement and ‘kakejiku’ hanging scroll in the alcove changing with the pages on the calendar, and this sensibility continues today in various forms.
One very easy way to celebrate the season by changing your interior scenery is to use small furoshiki depicting various times of year in turn on a tabletop or wall. Cherry blossom motifs like the one above are year-round favorites.
However you choose to use furoshiki, they are a wonderfully simple way to infuse your daily routine with the essence of Japan.