Furoshiki (wrapping cloth) (風呂敷)

Furoshiki is a piece of cloth similar to a regular square shape for wrapping things for carrying or storing.


Its origin is uncertain, but items which look like it have been found in the collection of Shoso-in Treasure Repository. In old times, it was called Koromotsutsumi (a wrapping cloth) or Hiratsutsumi (a wrapping cloth). There are explanations why it came to be called Furoshiki, including one which indicates it came from the fact that, in the end of the Muromachi period, Daimyo (feudal lord), at the time of bathing, undressed on a Hiratsutsumi spread out and wrapped his clothes with it, or wiped his feet with it, but it is uncertain. As a record of the term itself, the description on the distribution record of mementos of the Sunpu Tokugawa family is understood to be the first one. After then, during the Edo period when Sento (public bathhouses) became widely used, it spread also among the common people. Hiratsutsumi remains as a term meaning one of the ways to wrap using Furoshiki.

It came into wide use regardless of being only a piece of cloth, because it could wrap up things with various shapes and sizes. Furoshiki were made in various sizes and Sashiko (an old needlework technique) was used to increase strength. A large-sized cloth wrapper is called Oburoshiki, some of which can wrap up Futon (Japanese mattress).

After the Meiji period, as bags were imported from Western Europe, the use of Furoshiki was gradually reduced and it is rare to see it in town today. In recent years however, while environmental protection is emphasized, some have proposed the use of Furoshiki instead of supermarket checkout bags (described in detail in contemporary reassessment).

History and origin

Its origin as a piece of cloth to wrap up things is traced back as far as the Nara period and there remains one which was used to wrap up the costume for Bugaku (traditional Japanese court music accompanied by dancing) among the Shoso-in treasures.

In the Heian period, it was called 'Hiratsutsumi' (a wrapping cloth)'平裹'/'Hiratsutsumi' (a wrapping cloth)'平包' and pictures of the common people carrying wrapped clothes on their head were drawn (The character'裹' is different from '裏'(Ura)). On the other hand, it was the proper manner to take a bath wearing Byakue costumes rather than being naked because bathing was a serious occasion to purify one's body and soul at that time. For the above reason, they changed clothes on a piece of cloth spread out before and after taking a bath and the cloth was called 'Furoshiki,' which is, some say, the origin of the naming. It is thought, according to this theory, that in addition to usage as a sheet, usage as a wrapping cloth was gradually increased by the fact that they came to take back wet costumes wrapped up in Furoshiki.

Down to the Muromachi period, as a bath was like a steam room, materials such as 'straw mat,' 'wooden slats,' 'cloth,' and so on were spread out on the floor. Some say this is the origin of Furoshiki. It is on record that Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA constructed a big bathroom and invited Daimyo and so on, who wrapped up their clothes taken off in a piece of cloth attached with their family crest to avoid mixing up their clothes with others and after taking a bath put on their Shozoku (costumes) on the cloth, and the sheet used on that occasion are understood to be the oldest record of both roles of 'Furoshiki' and 'Hiratsutsumi' having been played.

Such a manner of taking a bath as above was handed down to the Edo period.
In the early Edo period, sento, a business to provide bathtubs filled with warm water, started and around the Genroku era, sento became popular in the towns of Edo and Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka area), where the common people went to sento carrying their clothes and items used for bathing wrapped up in 'Hiratsutsumi.'
Derived from wrapping up in a piece of cloth to be spread out on the floor of Furo (bath), it came to be extensively called 'Furoshiki-tsutsumi' or 'Furoshiki' instead of 'Hiratsutsumi.'
The name of Furoshiki as a piece of cloth for wrapping was spread that way and is thought to have been dispersed nationwide over time by peddlers as 'wrapping cloth' rather than 'cloth spread out on the floor of Furo.'

Pattern ~ Origin of arabesque pattern (design) ~

Many of the patterns used for 'Furoshiki' are typical- Japanese auspicious omen motifs derived from Kacho-fugetsu (beauties of nature, the traditional themes of natural beauty in Japanese aesthetics).

The 'arabesque pattern' (see the photograph on this page) which can be seen presently on cartoons and so on depicting a 'thief who shoulders stolen goods wrapped in arabesque-pattern Furoshiki,' is originally an auspicious omens motif and it should be kept in mind that the pattern has nothing to do with criminal offenses. The Furoshiki with arabesque patterns were, in fact, manufactured in large quantity from the Meiji to the Showa period. Around that time, a thief broke into a house empty-handed and first tried to find a large Furoshiki to wrap and carry stolen-goods. Due to the above, pieces of arabesque-pattern Furoshiki bringing up the image of thieves was established. The origins of the arabesque pattern can be traced back to ancient Egypt, from where it was brought into Japan through the Silk Road. And it became established as a pattern of Furoshiki in the Edo period. Arabesque was considered to be a highly auspicious token for longevity, fertility, and family prosperity due to its endless rambling behavior. Around that time, bridal furniture and bedclothes (Futon) seem to have been wrapped in arabesque-pattern Furoshiki.

Today, patterns have become diversified and there are patterns including plain, Komon (fine pattern), dyed thread-woven stripes, and checkered, and the increased number of patterns which are established as designs.

Traditional colors

At one time, Shu-iro (Empire red) was considered auspicious and best suited for congratulations, purple was considered showing respect to the other side, indigo was considered to be used for mourning, Rikyu (sophisticated wasabi-color (slightly dull yellowish green)) was usable for both congratulations and condolences, Enji-iro (crimson) was considered traditional Japanese and so on were mainstream, but today, they are also diversified.

Materials and flavor

The traditional materials are silk and cotton.

Depending on the weaving methods, there are such flavors as Chirimen (silk crepe) with typically pleasant texture, commonly-used Tsumugi (pongee) with family crest and so on and Ro (silk gauze) which is also used for Kimono (Japanese traditional clothing) for summer.

In addition to the above, many of synthetic fibers such as rayon, polyester and acetate are used today.


As for the size of Furoshiki, their lengths were found to be different from each other, which means their shapes were not a regular square, because from old times Furoshiki was made by cutting one Tan (width of approx. 35cm~40cm and length of approx. 12m) of textile into pieces without incurring waste and sewing them.

The basic size is called Hitohaba (cloth width) which has a width of nine Sun (approx. 34cm) of Kujirajaku (a measuring stick used in kimono-making) with the shorter length at approx. 34cm and the longer length at 37cm. Furoshiki made by cutting 1 Tan equally into five pieces and sewing them was called an Ittanburoshiki (Muhaba), the largest one of which was equal to approximately two Tatami mats in size. Presently, there are Futahaba (double width) with the approximate size of 68cm and 71cm which is double the width (4 times in area) of Hitohaba, and sizes called Yohaba which is double the width of Futahaba and Muhaba which are approx. 204cm and 207cm, and in addition, squares with sides approx. 45cm are called Chuhaba (medium width) and squares with sides approx. 90cm are called Nishihaba.

Futahaba and Chuhaba were used at congratulations and condolences such as wedding presents and Chugen (Bon gifts), Nishihaba for shopping and Yohaba for moving and homecoming visits. It is said that people in Edo where fires frequently occurred made it a practice to keep a Muhaba-size Furoshiki spread out under their bedding to prepare for throwing their furniture and household goods onto the bedding, wrapping up anything and everything as they were in the Furoshiki and escaping the fire when it occurred. Today, Futahaba, Chuhaba and Nishihaba are mainstream, and Yohaba is used as a coverlet for Kotatsu and Muhaba as a table cover, mural decoration and so on.

Manner on the occasion of gift-giving

When one is giving a gift, it is considered impolite to give it directly by hand and it is instead considered polite to take it being wrapped in Furoshiki.
Further, while some believe that giving a gift wrapped in Furoshiki conforms to the rules of etiquette, some insist on refraining from doing so because it would suggest 'asking for its return wrapped in this Furoshiki.'

In most cases today, one unwraps a gift off Furoshiki before giving it leaving the gift alone and taking back Furoshiki, which means conformity to the latter rule, but some propose, in these days, to give a gift being kept wrapped in Furoshiki, where Furoshiki itself be considered as a new type of gift wrapping material.

As a word for banter and criticism

While Oburoshiki refers to a large-sized Furoshiki (cloth wrapper), the sentence, 'to spread out Oburoshiki' is to make fun of or criticize impossibly exaggerated plans or stories, making impossible plans or making a bold pronouncement.
On the contrary, the situations where things, plans or stories move towards resolution, or its preparatory stages are sometimes referred to as 'to fold up Furoshiki.'
Shinpei GOTO was a very capable person, the plans of whom were nicknamed as 'Oburoshiki' due to their huge scale.

Reasons to be reassessed

Furoshiki' has been reassessed recently due allegedly to its flexibility and unrestrictedness indicated by the facts that, as compared with bags and so on introduced from abroad, it can be used to wrap up things freely without being restricted by sizes and shapes of things to be wrapped, it can be folded up to reduce its size and it is lightweight, and due to its possible contribution to environmental protection.

Essence of basic wrapping methods

However, as one typical aspect of Japanese culture, the level of knowledge and technique of users of Furoshiki is directly related to the utilization level due to its high simplicity as a device. In order to make 'Furoshiki' really practical instead of leaving it finished as a fad, it is necessary to learn techniques to wrap up things as desired.

The basic technique to wrap up things freely in Furoshiki is 'Musubi' (knot). By combining two types of Musubi methods, relatively free wrappings can be done.
These basic Musubi are 'Simple knot' and 'Tight knot (reef knot/Kanamusubi).'

A Simple knot is made with a single knot with only one corner of the Furoshiki.

A Tight knot is made with two knots with two corners of the Furoshiki. In this case, one should be careful not to tie a granny knot by mistake, which is easy to untie and is dangerous. One survey has indicated that most of the Japanese at the age of 40 or younger today end up with granny knots. Whether a knot is correct or not only depends on the sequence of the right and left corners at the second knot.

Influence on environmental problem

On the assumption that the weight of one supermarket checkout bag is approx. 8 to 10 grams, then a sake cup (approx. 16 to 18 milliliter) of crude oil is considered to be consumed in the manufacturing process. Since 30 grams and 31 grams of carbon dioxide are emitted in the processes of manufacturing and incineration respectively, approx. 61 grams of carbon dioxide emission can be curbed by not using one supermarket checkout bag. According to the Ministry of the Environment, annual usage of supermarket checkout bags in Japan today is 30 billion pieces which can be converted into approx. 600 thousand kiloliters of crude oil and the disposed quantity runs up to approx. 600 thousand tons. One can personally contribute on a daily basis to the reduction of carbon dioxide and waste disposal and eventually to the prevention of global warming by converting the use of supermarket checkout bags into the use of his or her own Furoshiki in shopping.

[Original Japanese]