The Free Range Reader delves into the Japanese custom of ‘furoshiki’

Posted in Blogs, Visual Art

ZIA GIPSON, Feb. 22, 2013

Forty-four years ago I spent the summer in Japan. I vividly remember shopping in tiny stationery stores along crowded Yokohama streets, where the stores wrapped my purchases of delicate paper and envelopes in colored, patterned paper—different in every shop—and tied them with colored string to take home. At each stop I placed my packages into a furoshiki, or wrapping cloth, and tied the top into handles to make a portable bundle. Returning home at the end of the day, I untied the furoshiki to find a pile of elegantly attired packages, each one an artwork in itself. I noticed that each store had its own unique wrapping paper, much the way our shopping bags today carry a company logo. 

Zia Gipson's personal Furoshiki used for wrapping packages to carry home. (Photo courtesy of Zia Gipson)

Zia Gipson’s personal Furoshiki used for wrapping packages to carry home. (Photo courtesy of Zia Gipson)

Later that summer, my family spent a few nights in a Japanese inn, or ryokan. Upon arrival, we changed into yakata, the cool summer cotton kimonos provided by the inn. As we walked through town, it seemed that everyone wore a different, lightweight kimono patterned in indigo blue and white. Had we lost our way, a resident would have been able to tell us where we were staying by the design we wore! This summer feast of design-in-use was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with color and pattern, a minor obsession that has found expression in much of my artistic work.
Today’s blog covers two books about the furoshiki wrapping cloths from Japan that I learned to appreciate so long ago. Still in use, furoshiki are a beautiful and practical alternative to the environmentally disastrous plastic bag. While Americans in some parts of the U.S. have gone back to reusable bags, the Japanese seem to be going back to an older tradition—if indeed they ever left it.
A typical furoshiki is around 17 inches square. The two I have, each 20-inch squares, are printed with depictions of kimono-wearing women. My two cloths have images of old Japan, but many furoshiki I’ve seen on the Web recently are elaborately patterned with images of the natural world, images from domestic life, or abstract patterns.
Sno-Isle Libraries has two very different books on the subject. The first, “Furoshiki Fabric Wraps” by Pixeladies (Deb Cashatt and Kris Sazaki, 2012) tells us that these wrapping cloths were first used to wrap the clothes of nobility. Later, when public baths became popular, the fabric squares were used to carry clothing to and from the baths. “Furoshiki Fabric Wraps” contains how-to-wrap diagrams much like those in origami (paper-folding) manuals. The illustrations take us through basic knots and twists and the various shapes that can be folded or tied for different purposes. For example, there is the hand-carry wrap (a two-handled shape), the watermelon wrap (for long, oval shapes), and several varieties tied especially for carrying books. The authors provide instruction for some surface design techniques for those who wish to make custom wrapping cloths. I especially liked the inclusion of five pages of pull-out how-to-fold cards.
An entirely different type of book on the same topic, Furoshiki “The Art of Japanese Wrapping Fabric” by Kanako Hamasaki (2011) was produced in Japan. Its white-clad cover with minimalist black lettering sets the tone for 244 pages of photographs of the traditional carrying cloths. The photography by Hiroshi Yoda and design by Kazuya Takaoka make the book a visual feast. Limited Japanese and English text appears opposite each image of the cloths, reading something like a koan or haiku. For example, the text for the cloth titled “Fukusa” on page 218 reads:

A crane and a tortoise at the lakeshore.
At the beginning of each seasonal ceremony
the emperor views the sun and the moon.
Court music is played
and danced  to for entertainment.
A cup of sake celebrates longevity.

Books like this one always prompt me to wonder whatever possessed the acquisitions staff to purchase such a lovely book. It’s certainly not a predictable addition, making it all the more precious when the reader stumbles across it. That’s the magic of libraries: They bring you gifts you didn’t even know existed and allow you to fall in love with something beautiful and rare.

My “Catches of the Day” are “100 Diagrams that Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod” by Scott Christianson and “My Cool Caravan: An Inspirational Guide to Retro-Style Caravans” by Jane Field-Lewis.

Next time I’ll take a look at two books about color, but in an  historical and anthropological context. 

Coming up:
Clinton Library Book Sale from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at Clinton Community Hall.

In the meantime, don’t forget to put libraries and librarians in your bedtime prayers. I love my library!

Zia Gipson is a mixed-media artist who is working on a series of collages that incorporate printmaking, stamping, drawing, painting, and other forms of mark-making. She’s active in the artists’ groups, Whidbey Island Surface Design and Northwest Designer Craftsmen.

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