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Tenugui: More than Just a Hand Towel

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/18 Traditional Culture , ,

A tenugui (手拭い) in its simplest definition is a traditional Japanese hand towel made of cotton. It is usually about 35 by 90 centimeters in size. It is typically plain woven and though there are also plain designs, it has usually repeating patterns printed/dyed on its surface. But a tenugui is not just a plain towel. Find out why below.

tenugui

Tenugui of different designs. (Photo by ma_shimaro on Flickr)

The first time I saw a tenugui is when our Japanese sensei gave us as a gift. I thought, what she has given us is just a hand towel, a towel that even I, myself, can buy in stores in my own country. She then explained to us what it is. And the ways it can be use, which is technically, limitless.

History of Tenugui

It is said that tenugui were already used during the Nara period (710 – 794 AD) but it was treated such a precious item and is not that known to the people. In the Heian period (794 – 1192 AD), the tenugui was used as accessories in Shinto shrines and rituals. It gradually became more popular during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333). During the Edo period (1592 – 1868), cotton cultivation began in various areas in Japan and the tenugui became a necessary item for living. People during this time regarded the tenugui as not only a valuable item but also a canvass for artistic works. A contest called “Tenugui-awase”, where people present their original designs on tenugui, became a widespread event.

As modernization came, the use of the tenugui became less and less common but in the last few decades, stores have started selling them again. The tenugui became popular again and now used as a daily commodity and a souvenir.

Types of Tenugui

The tenugui has several types according to the fineness of the cloth, which is from fine to coarse. The finer the cloth, the easier it is to design. In addition to its fineness type, there are also two types to decorate them: chusen dying and printing.

Chusen

Chusen is a traditional technique that has been around since the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). It is done by using a stencil paper. Since the dye seeps into the cloth, the patterns appear on both sides. When the dye fades by using the tenugui for a long period of time, it gives the cloth a well-aged look.

Printed

Printing the design is another technique and compared to the chusen technique, it can produce more detailed characters and patterns as they are printed using a silkscreen. The patterns are printed on one side only and the back side is a solid color.

There are many ways to use a tenugui. As the world is becoming more and more modernized, its uses are also becoming more and more. It can be used as a wiping tool, as a wrapper, as a decoration, as a cover, the uses are limitless. To preserve the tenugui’s color, it is advised to not use a detergent in washing it and do not expose it to direct sunlight.

What do you know about the tenugui? Share it with us in the comments section below!

References:

1. Tenugui and Kamawanu. Kamawanu.

2. “Tenugui” hand towels, perfect as souvenirs. Japan Monthly Web Magazine.

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