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  • Chusen Tenugui: Beautiful, Hand-dyed Multipurpose Cloths from Japan

    July 19, 2022 3 min read

    Sometimes, I feel like my fellow Japanese folk have to make every simple craft into some kind of masterpiece. From Tamagoyaki omelet making, wrapping gifts ornately, and even typing. If there’s a skill you can master, I guarantee a Japanese person has elevated that simple task to the next level. This simple multi-purpose piece of fabric known as ‘tenugui’ is no exception to this rule.

    Tenugui literally means handkerchief in Japanese: “to wipe your hand”, but it is so much more. A useful and versatile tool, this simple piece of cotton fabric has been utilized for a wide gambit of activities in Japan over the centuries. Yes, you can wipe your face, brow, or hands with it, but tenugui can be used for wrapping gifts, as a dishcloth, placemat, or even as a fashionable scarf or bandana! With their ornate hand-dyed patterns, they lend themselves well to presentation and personal adornment.

    Just look at those gorgeous colours! Who wouldn't want to wear these on their body?

    The tenugui we sell are 100% cotton, which makes them ultra absorbent. Because of their thinness, tenugui also dry very quickly! These simple features make them incredibly versatile. Tenugui have even been used in many Japanese traditional arts such as Kabuki (traditional dance), Rakugo (storytelling) and Kendo (martial arts). 

    Our Nishikawa Tenugui are made with a dyeing technique called Chusen, just one of many traditional dyeing techniques in Japan, among others like Yuzen, Komon, & Shibori. Your mind likely conjures images of simpler fabric dyeing processes where the fabric is soaked whole in a bucket of coloured dye, but this Chusen technique requires more finesses and skill. We were lucky enough to visit Nishikawa-san’s workshop in Sakai and witness this hypnotic process firsthand.

     Nishikawa-san next to a huge pile of white cotton, ready to be hand-dyed.

    First, the workers choose the pattern they want on the tenugui and place a patterned mask over the fabric. Then a special clay is scraped over the pattern mask, filling in the holes and preventing the dye from absorbing in those areas. Sometimes glue is even used in combination with the pattern to create a colour transition across different parts of the fabric. Once the appropriate masks are applied, dye is carefully poured across the material from a special gooseneck vessel and spread by hand to saturate the fibres evenly. They can even make gorgeous colour gradients by pouring different coloured dyes simultaneously!

    Nishikawa-san expertly mixes each dye colour by eye from several base colours, which means he can custom-mix any colour imaginable! He uses no measurements or fancy formulas, relying instead on his immense experience and skill to get the colour just right every time. Once the colour is applied, the tenugui are hung in a 3-story tall wooden tower from rafters overhead to sway gently in the breeze while the dye dries. They are then washed and cut to the appropriate size.

    Finished tenugui, drying gently in the breeze before cutting.

    While this process looks a lot like screenprinting t-shirts, the Chusen technique has one significant advantage: It dyes all the way through the fabric rather than just applying colour to one side. Screen printing often creates a layer of ink that prevents water from absorbing into the fabric, whereas chusen dying leaves the cloth super absorbant. The ends of tenugui are not hemmed, which allows them to dry quickly but leaves them more vulnerable to aggressive machine washing. Simply machine wash these on gentle or by hand and snip any frayed threads from the ends. After a few washes, they should stop fraying! This plays into the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, items changing and becoming more beautiful as they age. 

    There are endless possibilities of how you can use tenugui. Their absorbency makes them perfect for washing and drying dishes or an ideal handkerchief to wipe sweat from your brow. They can be washed and reused for ages, allowing you to cut down on wasted paper towels. When the tenugui starts to look a little worse for wear, They are a perfect household cleaning cloth for wiping counters, glass, or dusting.

    Tenugui are super handy around the kitchen for drying hands and dishes!

    You can find Chusen tenugui at Knifewear in three traditional Japanese patterns: Yagasuri (Arrow), Mameshibori (Dots) and Karakusa (Filigree). I hope you love them and use them as much as we do!

    Grab Yourself a Tenugui!

    We shot a ton of video at Nishikawa Tenugui that shows the full process start to finish:

    Products used in this article

       Naoto Fujimoto
    Naoto Fujimoto

    Naoto came to Canada several years ago and we aren't letting him go back. After getting angry with his roommate's dull knives, he started to dream of sharp Japanese knives. Naoto graduated from University of Calgary with a bachelor degree of art, majoring International Relations and finds that selling Japanese knives is his own way of doing international relations. Naoto is our Head of Shipping and receiving. You can also see him in SpringHammer looking cool and holding it all together.

    Naoto's Knife Sharpening Instagram