Saturday, May 21, 2011

The art of the Japanese Tenugui

In earlier posts I have sometimes shown a quilt backing which has been composed of Japanese tenugui or cotton towels. Indeed, many of the quilts I have made use tenugui either on the back or as part of the design. Sometimes I get questions about tenugui so today I thought it would be fun to show and tell more than you may wish to know about the art of tenugui, and indeed, it is an art.

I have sometimes referred to tenugui to be seen along the lines of postage stamps. Although I was a poor student of history and geography, I loved to collect postage stamps. They were like tiny travel posters showing the nature, historical events, places and people that defined a country.
Each country puts out lovely commemorative issues and they may be used on letters as regular postage or kept as collectors items. We can learn a lot by examining these stamps and they are small enough to be stored in albums.

Tenugui are rectangular cotton hand towels. They were sometimes distributed as gifts by shops or firms commemorating their opening and may contain addresses or the phone number of the shop. The tenugui of yesterday has gradually been replaced by terrycloth towels and handkerchiefs and many of today's tenugui are pure art to be looked at as well as used. We used to have a tenugui of the Tokyo Tower that had been framed and hung as a picture by my Father-in-law. Sometimes they are sewed into bags or cushions or noren, a strip curtain dividing rooms. They are often used as stage props in kabuki, rakugo (comical storytelling), and Japanese dancing.

The process by which these towels are made is as fascinating as the towels themselves. Both Yukata (a cotton summer kimono) and tenugui are dyed as a strip of fabric. That bolt or roll is anywhere from thirteen and a half to about fifteen inches in width. The cloth is stenciled with a kind of paste that works much like wax in batik. It is done in sections and folded back over itself like an accordion. The length might vary depending on the ultimate use but one roll is usually enough to make one yukata with some bit left over.

After each application of paste, the dye is put on top of the pile of fabric over a vat of the same width and sucked through the pile. Then the excess dye and paste are washed out, and the fabric dried and re-wound for further dying or cutting into lengths.



The price can range from around five hundred yen for a two color towel of simple design to thousands of yen for real works of art.
The series of childrens' games on my last post cost around one thousand two hundred per towel a few years back when the dollar/yen was about 100 yen to the dollar.

The small kaleidoscope quilt has five towels on the back. The writing on the red one is a poem or song. The other four show a sense of humor, such as advice on manners and replies to requests and the like.


I have photographed some un-cut towels and you can see how each section is the reverse of the one before. If the design includes writing, one has to be careful to put the right side facing up as it is impossible to tell one side from the other by just looking at the pattern.

The two top towels have a design depicting strips of cloth being stretched out to dry. The blue and white towel can be folded in half lengthwise and then accordion folded to form a cloth book. This piece of art shows the variety of ways to use a tenugui, from a blindfold for a children's game, a head scarf, exercising, fishing, bathing and even picking fruit. The towel with many people is of a festival. The people are carrying portable shrines and they are all wearing tenugui as hachimaki or headbands to keep the perspiration from their eyes. The lower towel with the red character says "matsuri" or festival and that is the type of towel most often worn as a hachimaki.


Here are a few more forms of towel containing writing. The top is advice on how to live a long life. Actually, it is a list of funny excuses to give when your maker comes to call you home. The dark blue is writing by someone having reached the auspicious age of 88. The iris on white is the name of a Sumo wrestler who may have presented these to his fans upon being promoted to a higher rank. The beige towels show some folk art.


This year many of the places selling the towels had a selection of rabbits as this is the rabbit year by the oriental zodiac. Several quilts I have made for my grandchildren feature zodiac animal towels on the back. On one I asked family members to sign their names on their animal.


Just like stash, these towels tend to grow in numbers in dark places. Unlike postage stamps they take up more room. I have a set of three plastic stacking drawers and in true librarian fashion, the towels are folded and placed by topic. They might be festivals like those above, famous kabuki scenes, sumo wrestlers' hand prints, scenes from famous places, flowers of various seasons, and just like postage stamps, interesting bits of culture. Some may find their way to the backs of quilts. Others are old that have been given me by people clearing out their cupboards. I once made a purple quilt for my SIL who loves purple and just went through the pile pulling out any towel with purple for the back. Most of those were from Japanese dance school recitals or kabuki actors assuming a family name.


The cloth tends to be more loosely woven that modern print cotton. It is surprisingly durable and the colors are fast. It is quite soft and less likely to slide off a child's bed. Because of the variety of lengths and widths it is not easy to piece into one large back. It can be pieced along with yukata fabric but is noticeably different from regular cotton prints in texture. I would offer some to anyone interested if they thought they might be able to find a use for it. Then, again, I still have three cat panels looking for a home.










18 comments:

  1. Thank you for that informative post. Collecting these seems to be a bit like collecting the depression-era feedsacks. If you have any of these with parrots I would be happy to give them a good home :-)

    (And speaking of parrots--my confirmation word is "der wing", funnily enough)

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  2. I didn't know about these. How interesting! Thanks for sharing!

    LaDonna

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  3. My daughter brought some of these towels back with her when she moved home from Kagoshima. Do you have a towel from Mushashi Maru...he was my favorite sumo? Please remember me if no one else wants the beautiful kitty panels. I do a lot of charity projects, and kitty fabric is in great demand! Thanks again for the one you sent me!

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  4. Thanks for telling about these cute towels, they look very nice. I can understand why you collect them.

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  5. I think if I lived in Japan I would have a large collection of these towels. How interesting they are. Thank-you for telling us about them. I love all the info you share about Japan. I would love to have a towel if you have one you think would speak to me....

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  6. These are so neat! I'd collect them if I had a chance. Each one looks different but beautiful. I'm making two 'Fat Cats in the City' quilts for friends. These would be fun to use as backings for these cat lovers.

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  7. Great post on tenugui. I have collected some in the past too thinking I'd make a quilt someday. And then my daughter used loads of them when she did kendo (wrap them around your head under that helmet). I thought about making her a kendo quilt with them... Sweat stains and all! That's another someday project.

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  8. Julie, this is a fascinating post, I had no idea about the variety in these tenugui. It is quite like the tea towels we can buy as souvenirs of places we visit. Do you fancy a little swap? I'd love to have some Japanese towels to use and I could send you some English tea towels? Let me know.

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  9. Just amazing Julie! I loved reading about how these were made and the things they might say or depict. blessings, marlene

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  10. A great post! Another lesson learned!!! 8-)
    Your quilt is lovely!

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  11. My daughter just received a tenugui from one of her classmates here. He is Japanese but attends the German School with her. Your posts reminds me fondly of Japan.

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  12. Great post Julie!

    The kaleidoscope quilt is lovely. Hope all is well.

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  13. Memories of window shopping at some of the train stations shops and department stores in Tokyo while waiting to meet up with someone. Numerous times I would purchase a tenugui while waiting. Now the many tenugui that I purchased take a turn decorating my dinning room table. I never get tired of them, so refreshing!

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  14. Hi there,

    I'm just starting quilting and love the look of Japanese fabrics and particular the more traditional geometric prints...

    I've done a search on Tengui and your blog comes up - you've some beautiful work and I hope that you may be able to help...

    I'm actually making my very first quilt (for my wife), I bought some fabrics from Liberty London for the quilt top, which is now done, and was looking at Tenugui fabrics for the back, but I know nothing....

    The pieces I'm looking at need to be imported from Japan to me (in Ireland) and I have no access to actually touch and feel them, they'rec.13x36 inch, so I'll need to piece a number together, so the questions I have are:

    What's Tengui fabric actually like? From the pictures I see and the description I have, it seems to be a little "tougher"? What's it like to piece together and what's the feel?

    I know this is a little vague, but, as I said - this is the very first quilt I've ever done and I can't find this fabric anywhere for me to check out in person.

    Many thanks, David

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    Replies
    1. Dave, you come through as a no-reply blogger so I hope this message will reach you.
      Basically the towels are a soft cotton, The weave is a bit looser than the polished cottons we find in fabric shops. There does tend to be some variety in quality but the poorer towels are usually those made cheaply for advertising. There can also be a slight variety in size but they are close enough for piecing into background.
      Yukata fabric is made the same way and they can be interchanged.

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    2. For some reason, my comments are acting up... Apologies for double posting... Thank you for your insight, you've inspired me... I think I'll give it a go!

      Many thanks again, David

      Delete
  15. Hi there,

    I'm just starting quilting and love the look of Japanese fabrics and particular the more traditional geometric prints...

    I've done a search on Tengui and your blog comes up - you've some beautiful work and I hope that you may be able to help...

    I'm actually making my very first quilt (for my wife), I bought some fabrics from Liberty London for the quilt top, which is now done, and was looking at Tenugui fabrics for the back, but I know nothing....

    The pieces I'm looking at need to be imported from Japan to me (in Ireland) and I have no access to actually touch and feel them, they'rec.13x36 inch, so I'll need to piece a number together, so the questions I have are:

    What's Tengui fabric actually like? From the pictures I see and the description I have, it seems to be a little "tougher"? What's it like to piece together and what's the feel?

    I know this is a little vague, but, as I said - this is the very first quilt I've ever done and I can't find this fabric anywhere for me to check out in person.

    Many thanks, David

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David, I wrote you a reply before I noticed you are still no-reply. If you click on your name in the reply as: box, you can change to the open ID for that comment and it might help ... or send your e-mail address. If there is anything I can do to help you in your search, please let me know.

      Delete