When you look online for tenugi you’re likely to come across items referred to as ‘Japanese hand towels.’ This is accurate in that it describes how tenugui were traditionally used and the name tenugui itself reveals these origins.
But it can also be unintentionally misleading because for many westerners the word towel immediately calls to mind something that is fundamentally different from a tenugui.
A literal translation of the word tenugui reveals its history, which stretches back over hundreds of years. The first syllable means ‘hand’ and is written with the kanji character 手(it’s also sometimes represented by the character て from the hiragana syllabary), which is followed by a form of the verb for ‘wipe.’ It harks back to the utilitarian roots of this humble cloth, a vestige of the days when it was a fixture in the kitchen for drying hands and dishes and was often carried or worn as a head covering.
The gauze tenugui below and others with a variety of repeat patterns in my shop are priced lower than other tenugui and work well for such practical purposes. Here's a closeup of one that features an often seen pattern called asanoha(star hemp).
How exactly do tenugui differ from typical western towels? The hand towels that you have in your kitchen or bathroom are likely terry cloth cotton. Tenugui are also made of cotton, but the fabric isn’t looped like terry cloth, so they’re thinner and much less absorbent, with a different texture. Tenugui are a plain, flat weave of cloth, more similar to bandanas or the fabric that many bed sheets are made of than the typical hand towel found in the west.
But unlike a bandana, tenugui are rectangular. The size can vary a bit, but they’re generally around 35 inches long and 13 inches wide, give or take a couple of inches or so.
You can get an idea of the proportions of a typical tenugui by looking at the photo below. Plum blossoms and nightingales are the focus here, in a traditional scene. Most tenugui like this are used for display because the scenes lend themselves so well to decorating. This one happens to be vertical, but motifs with a horizontal orientation are also common.
Perhaps the most important difference to keep in mind when comparing tenugui to such things as bandanas and towels is that they’re not sewn at the ends. Because the ends are unfinished, the horizontal threads are loose.
This is part of a tenugui’s charm, and it’s a mark of authenticity. But if you’re assuming that all the edges will be sewn based on your experience with towels and other western fabrics you might well be disappointed when you see the loose threads at the ends.
Tenugui fans around the world think of this as part of a tenugui’s charm, a mark of authenticity. But if you’re assuming that all the edges will be sewn based on your experience with towels and other western fabrics, you might well be disappointed when you see the loose threads at the ends. It really all boils down to expectations and having some basic information about what makes a tenugui a tenugui.
Now that we’ve drawn some distinctions between typically western style hand towels and tenugui, it’s interesting to note that you can actually use the word ‘towel’ now in the Japanese language with minor pronunciation tweaks, as the word has become part of the language.
Like many other foreign words that have entered the lexicon, it was adopted because there was a need to describe something that hadn’t existed before. In this case it refers to western style towels, which started to gain a foothold over a hundred years ago. This coincided with the beginning of a gradual decline in the use of tenugui, and it lead to a thinning of the ranks of tenugui companies over the decades in the same way that kimono companies have disappeared as fewer and fewer people choose to dress in the traditional way.
But recently tenugui have been enjoying a renaissance in Japan as well as finding new fans overseas, thanks to companies like Hamamonyo and Kyoto based Eirakuya.
They’ve succeeded in presenting tenugui as art by reviving select designs and creating new ones with modern sensibilities in mind that mix tradition with a modern flair. They’ve also developed product lines that include bags, handkerchiefs and other fashionable items with the same aesthetic.
Another company has even developed a licensed line of Star Wars themed tenugui. Here's a scene you probably never imaged you'd see, R2D2 and C3P0 happily soaking their cares away at a Japanese hot spring resort!
So if you hesitate to get a tenugui to use as decor rather than as a hand towel or head covering, there’s no need to feel like you’re not being true to its spirit or disrespecting the culture it came from. In fact, you’ll be in some very good company!
But don’t overlook the practical side of tenugui along the way. If you’re into martial arts, tennis, cycling, hiking or other active pursuits, give tenugui a try as an alternative to bandanas or headbands. And they’re a nice way to add a Japanese touch to your kitchen or bathroom, too.
If you use your tenugui in this way, you’ll wonder at some point what the best way to clean it is. If you wash your tenugui repeatedly, over time the loose threads will naturally tighten. I recommend hand washing and line drying when possible to prolong the life of the fabric and the design. If you do use a washing machine, putting your tenugui in a net bag will keep it from getting tangled with other things in the wash cycle, which could damage it.
Depending on the maker and style of the fabric, the length of the loose threads at the ends varies. Some people prefer to cut the dangling threads, but avoid pulling them to avoid excess fraying.
And if you iron it to get the creases out before displaying it, try a low heat setting first. Keep in mind as well that if you decide to frame it, pressing the glass against the fabric might well eliminate the creases.
How you use it is really is limited only by your imagination. There are no rules, per se. Let your inspiration be your guide in the tradition of what the Japanese call asobi-gokoro, literally a ‘playful heart’, an approach that expresses the joy of living in an exuberant, carefree and often humorous way.
Browse my selection and you’ll see lots of examples of this spirit in various designs. Take your cue from the artists and follow your fun in deciding how you use your tenugui!