When you shop online for Japanese tenugui cloth, 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. So can you really call it a tenugui towel? Yes, but with certain things in mind.
The history and characteristics of tenugui cloth
First, a bit about the word tenugui itself. If you’re not a native Japanese speaker, it can be hard to remember, and many people mistakenly call these cloths tenugi, tenagui or tenegui. Getting the romanized spelling right can help immeasurably in your online searching!
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.’
This meaning 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.
Simple cotton gauze tenugui are very reasonably priced and work well for such practical purposes. Recently people have been making face masks with this type of tenugui, too. I’ve seen some cool handmade tenugui face masks-just keep in mind that some basic sewing skills are needed, as you’ll likely want to add another layer of fabric on the inside.
How exactly do tenugui cloths differ from typical western towels? The hand towels that you have in your kitchen or bathroom are likely terry cloth cotton. Tenugui cloths 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 often 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. Tenugui 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. It’s off course best to check such details before you get one, especially if you need a specific length or width. Gauze tenugui are also well suited for use as head wraps.
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Perhaps the most important difference to keep in mind when comparing Japanese tenugui cloths 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 cloth’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. 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 fabric 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.
Recently tenugui have been enjoying a renaissance in Japan as well as finding new fans overseas thanks to delightful, eye catching designs from innovative 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.
One company has even developed a licensed line of Star Wars tenugui. Below is a scene with Japanese touches such as clouds with a pattern that resembles traditional ‘shibori’ tie-dyeing, along with some Japanese style waves. I did a double take when I first saw this and other star wars motif tenugui cloths, and then it made perfect sense, of course. George Lucas has, after all, always cited Japanese cinema as a major influence.
And below you’ll find an inspired mashup by a different company- a tenugui with Hokusai’s iconic work often known as The Wave paired with a rampaging Godzilla. He wreaks havoc as unfortunate sailors are tossed in the air with their boat reduced to splinters, cherry blossoms flutter in the breeze, testament to the transience of life. Just one of amazon’s collection of such inspired tenugui Star Wars scenes.
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 standard bandanas or headbands. And they’re a nice way to add a Japanese touch to your kitchen or bathroom, too.
Tenugui uses are myriad! So the bottom line is that if you’re wondering about how to use tenugui, feel free to explore the possibilities!
How do you wash a tenugui?
If you use your tenugui in ways such as those mentioned above, you’ll wonder at some point soon 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 cloth 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.
How to hang tenugui
If you iron your tenugui cloth 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, too.
Ironing is especially recommended if you decide to hang your tenugui on your wall without putting it under glass. In that case, wooden tenugui hangers like the one below are a simple, elegant way to display a tenugui. thumb tacks don’t even come close!
How you use your tenugui cloth 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.
Whether you call them Japanese hand towels, head wraps or wall hangings, take your cue from the artists who make them and follow your fun in deciding how you use your tenugui!
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