Thursday, December 2, 2010

My experiments with Furoshiki

Furoshiki in Japanese refers to the cloth used to wrap gifts in different styles using folds and knots. Charissa of The Gifted Blog has written about it and featured a few gifts wrapped with cloth; among them, a gift from India was wrapped using furoshiki and I thought I'd  return the compliment by using furoshiki to wrap gifts in India!

This post is dedicated to Raman, an inveterate traveller whose love of  Japan and all things Japanese is fairly infectious.

As I read more about this method from her blog and others, it struck me that in India we have been using cloth for wrapping things for ages. Even with the influx of hi-tech casseroles and microwaves etc., a cotton cloth continues to be used in many households to wrap chapattis (flat bread) that have come off the griddle in order to keep them soft and warm. A simple method of just folding opposite ends in sequence is usually used. Lunch boxes are sometimes wrapped in a square piece of cloth and knotted firmly. It helps to prevent spillage, and the cloth can also double as a napkin while eating.

In apartment complexes in the city, a man who irons clothes comes around to the apartments to fetch the clothes. He uses a bed sheet to wrap the clothes to be ironed from each household and knots it, using a method of knotting two opposite ends over the folded ones; instead of a hidden knot in the furoshiki style, this one is exposed. This bundle can either be carried over his shoulder like a bag, or if there are many bundles, he carries them on his head. In this way, not just does an old bed sheet get recycled into something useful, it also serves as an identification of the household to which the clothes belong.

Old dhotis made of silk and cotton (dhotis are unstitched lengths of cloth, usually muslin, that are worn by men as daily wear and also for religious rituals) are preserved for different uses. Silk dhotis are usually used to wrap silk sarees of special significance and store them away in cupboards. The cotton ones are sometimes cut into smaller pieces and used for any purpose that demands soft thin fabric. Till the entry of disposable diapers, such soft absorbent cloth was often recycled into nappies for infants, which made perfect sense in these climatic conditions.

With a wide array of natural and synthetic fabric, and weaves and colours to choose from in India, I wanted to try using some of them as furoshiki to wrap some gifts.  The results of my experiment are up here in this post.

My first thought was to try out khadi fabric for the “Indian” furoshiki.

Khadi is the term used for handspun and handwoven cloth made from natural fibres like cotton, silk and wool. It is linked to the life of Mahatma Gandhi who promoted the spinning of khadi cloth as a mark of protest during the freedom struggle. A spinning wheel called charkha is used for this. By law the Indian flag can only be printed on khadi cloth by a specific agency. Many politicians still wear khadi as a political statement. Outlets to promote khadi fabric and other produce have come up in cities, and khadi fabric is sometimes the focus of fashion shows. Although cotton khadi is fairly inexpensive and is usually coarser in nature, as the fabric becomes refined, the costs go up, and silk khadi can be quite expensive. A quality of this fabric is comfort -- it “breathes” because of the nature of the weave and can be cool in summer and warm in winter. The main drawback is that it creases easily.

Furoshiki - some basics
I was able to get an idea about the cloth from different websites, which helpfully include illustrations. There are even online videos which demonstrate different styles.

These are some basics I operated with:

  • Furoshiki cloth is usually square in shape in a variety of sizes. It could also be rectangular sometimes.
  • The borders are stitched.
  • I felt that furoshiki cloth should be initially made from a fresh piece of fabric, and the cloth should be reserved exclusively for this purpose. I didn’t read this anywhere, but I wouldn’t like to give anyone gifts wrapped in remnants of old clothes or used bedsheets.
  • The cloth can be coarse or fine, and styles of wrapping could differ based on the quality of cloth.
  • The cloth should ideally be reversible, because with certain styles of wrapping like knotting, the reverse side is sometimes exposed.   With the simple folding technique, it does not matter whether it is reversible or not.
  • I was unclear whether furoshiki is still expected to be taken back by the giver after the gift is presented in current times. 
Results of the experiment  

Here are some samples of furoshiki wrapped gifts. An assortment of gifts of different shapes were chosen, and two styles are explained step-by-step at the end of this post.

There are several online guides on furoshiki styles that suit specific gifts, or even converting the cloth into bags. There are some established styles with descriptive Japanese names.   However since some of them worked out a little differently (an understatement indeed!), I have just given them some simple names.

Khadi furoshiki (coarser cloth)  in butterfly (or kimono) style. A rectangular cloth fell too short for proper knotting resulting in this colourful gift wrap.

Khadi furoshiki (fine quality) used to wrap a large box.  A flower knot was attempted, but the petals ended up overhanging. The size of the gift and the cloth have to match in order for the style to work. However,for the first time I appreciated  this cloth when it was juxtaposed against the seashell -- the weave of the fabric, and the design on the seashell were uncannily similar. 

Cotton  fish print furoshiki used for a folded gift wrap. A jute-viscose gift tag labelled using a simple fineliner pen. If there is a large graphic to focus on,  a little bit of experimentation may be needed so that the graphic is on the presenting side.

Two-toned rayon furoshiki to wrap a cylindrical object. Aiming for a rabbit wrap, and just about getting the ears.. maybe somewhat endearingly floppy bunny-like.

Silk furoshiki used in a holdable gift wrap. 

Experiences with furoshiki
  • It isn’t as simple as it looks (and I don’t think you needed me to tell you that).
  • One needs some practice to figure out the sizes of cloth required for different shapes of gifts so that one gets the best effect of the knots and folds. Else it can get pretty messy looking. ( I am not happy with some of the results for this reason, nor with my photography skills, but since this was just an experiment, I’m sure I’ll get better.)
  • In general, I got the impression that thinner and larger-sized cloths are best for knotting, while the thicker and smaller-sized ones are better folded.
  • For books, I felt the folded style using thicker cloth was better. Although the hidden knot style was tempting, when I tried it with book wrap, I felt the knot looked bulky especially since the gift itself was so flat.
  • The furoshiki cloth, especially cotton cloth, needs to be ironed really well -- not just does it appear neater, but the creases help the beginner make neater folds.
  • The synthetic cloth used (green colour) really draped well and retained its stiffness.
  • I shopped around in 2-3 places for suitable fabrics, and the steal was of course a bed sheet with the fish print design. I thought it was ideal for gift wrapping for children.
  • I also confess to have cheated and bought a square tablecloth for furoshiki (the green synthetic one), which was great because I did not have to pay extra to get it stitched. Also the slightly wider hem made better bunny ears!
  • I deliberately avoided using rubber bands or ribbons which might have held things together better, as I believed the original focus was on simple knots and folds without extra frills and fancies.
  • I thought that using paper or card as gift tags would spoil the effect, so I made cloth tags using starched jute-viscose fabric that was lying about the house. It requires very little effort to cut it into rectangles, make a fringe, and just take a fineliner and sketch/write what you want on it. If I had time, I could have painted it on instead.

Would I  Should I  Could I  ... use Furoshiki ?
  • Yes, I would use furoshiki for gift wrapping. I would start by using it for children’s gifts -- not just do they form the bulk of the gifts I give these days, but I think that children are really receptive and welcoming to any new ideas.
  • Wrapping books using the folding method was really a child’s play especially for a person who is not good at knots, and the result was fairly neat with very few creases in the cloth.
  • Certain furoshiki like the fish print cloth which is mid-range in cost, I could bear to part with -- in fact, I have an idea that children might love to either use it as a napkin or maybe wrap gifts for someone else. I thought of gifting some furoshiki away with a little tag that explains how it can be used.
  • But certain cloth, in particular the brown khadi cloth, which I absolutely love and which was the most expensive of the lot, would not be given away. I would prefer to keep it and reuse it as furoshiki.
  • In India, gifts are not usually opened immediately unless it is a fairly small gathering and the giver can casually suggest that the receiver open the gift and see whether they like it.  So I cannot see myself making a scene about getting the furoshiki back after the party! I think one has to ad lib according to the occasion, and naturally use an appropriate cloth  -- if the furoshiki is of special significance to you and you want it back, it might be a good idea to present the gift in a slightly formal way  (maybe on a tray) to the intended recipient, wait for him/her to open it, and while they are in raptures over your beautiful gift, quickly take back the furoshiki before they even know it is missing. Ok, I’m just kidding -- I’m sure they will return it if you ask nicely.   
Khadi furoshiki anyone?

I would like to make a special mention of khadi as furoshiki cloth. I used two different qualities (the blue printed one and the brown one), and really felt that the fabric could be used to wrap gifts. From time to time, khadi undergoes a revival in order to popularise what some would see as fairly dated styles of clothing and difficult to maintain fabric. To that end, khadi outlets have come up in several cities and sell not just their fabric, but also a wide variety of food produce produced in a small scale. They already sell inexpensive bags made of khadi and sheets of handmade paper, but perhaps if simple square hemmed cloths of different qualities, prints and sizes could be sold at these shops, they could be put to use in this interesting way. Of course it would make perfect sense only if the furoshiki can be reused or the idea of reusable gift wrapping could be passed on to others. 

Advantages of khadi fabric for furoshiki :
  • The finer khadi cloth (the brown fabric used here) drapes well and is almost like paper,
  • Khadi cloth’s special significance to India and small scale cottage industries is still relevant to those interested in the environment and conservation,
  • The philosophy of furoshiki really melds well with khadi fabric especially if we follow the system of reusing the cloth,  
  • Khadi also comes in different qualities and it would lend itself well to both folds and knots depending on this. 

The drawbacks of khadi fabric for furoshiki :

  • High cost in the case of the finer quality (to give an idea of the cost -- for the amount I paid for just the brown khadi cloth shown in the pictures, I could have easily bought about 100 sheets of ordinary wrapping paper costing about 2-3 rupees a sheet.  
  • Since khadi creases a lot, it might require a lot of ironing, and if it is being re-used, a starch rinse might be in order to make it stiffer. 
In conclusion

As far as costs go (and Charissa has also brought up this issue on her blog), furoshiki cannot be cheap even here in India where fabrics come in a wide range of prices. Besides, gift wrapping is usually offered gratis and it would require some effort to walk away and do something different. However, something novel which resonates like furoshiki and is indeed reminiscent of some traditional practices might find some takers. I'll keep you posted!

Two techniques in detail

Simple folding gift wrap

Spread the cloth in a diamond shape on a flat surface. Place the gifts across the centre.

Take the end closest to you upwards and tuck it in.

Fold the left end inwards.

Fold the right end over it and tuck it inside.

Bring the uppermost corner over the books, constantly checking the sides and flattening it.

Flip the books and bring the corner flap over so that it resembles an envelope. While ironing the furoshiki, making sharp crease lines could help while making the folds.

Add a tag and you're done.

Loop gift wrap

Place the cylindrical object at one corner of the furoshiki, taking due care of the contents and any loose lids of course!

Roll the object and cloth towards the opposite end.

Adjust the opposite corners to make a first knot. Then add another knot to form a loop which can be used for carrying the gift.

You might be also interested in the following posts:

Why wrap gifts?
A study in brown


  1. Hey Nami

    That was really interesting - but i find the practical application tough. Like you mentioned cost would be a big factor. Plus - i really don't see myself asking anyone for the cloth back :D

    I loved the folding one - mainly cos it is simple - plus the fact that the graphic print repeated on the tag looked so great. :)

  2. Namitha. Wow you put a lot of work into this post!!! How long did it take you from time you thought of the idea till you published this! I appreciate you!

    Like you mentioned cloth is used in India to wrap chappatis and lunchboxes, etc., this is also true with the Japanese wrapping fabric. Recently my Japanese friends gave me some gifts wrapped in the cloth. I question whether anyone would ask for it back. But, in any case, I was told by my Japanese friends that the cloth can be used for a host of other things like- carrying lunch to work, carrying books to school, or even as a scarf! The fabric used in wrapping my gift was 2 or 3 feet long and about 6-9 inches wide. I went to a reiki/shiatsu massage here, and the therapist used this same category of cloth for putting over my eyes while I got the massage.
    Instead of returning the same cloth to the giver of the gift, I was told it is suitable to wrap a gift to a different person in the same cloth.

  3. Thanks Kamini and Jennifer for reading the post and commenting.

    Kamini, the folded wrap is something that is really easy and even a kid can handle it -- and no scissors involved even! I would definitely use it again. And its small size makes it easier to use as a napkin perhaps.

    Jennifer: This article, as you made out, took ages because of the different components like reading up, accessing the material, trying it out, photographing and then writing about it. Photography is not my forte and it is challenging to get good photos indoors. Anyway from the idea popping up to posting took not less than one and half months -- partly because I did it in bits and pieces. I usually mull over the complete layout in my brain (if that makes sense) for days before I write it out finally.

  4. Yay Namitha! What a great and thorough job you've done here; just got the opportunity to read it from beginning to end. I love the look of the two khadi wraps. The colors and differences in the weaves make each quite distinct. It's exciting to see a blend of Japanese and Indian tradition here on your blog!

    I think traditionally, the furoshiki was seen as belonging to the gift-giver, and was given back. But since most people nowdays aren't familiar with their use, furoshiki are primarily given as a part of the gift. I had the same dilemma of not wanting to give all of mine away - in Japan my husband and I picked out two furoshiki that we're keeping for gifts to one another and to our son.

  5. Charissa, thanks very much for reading it and giving your feedback. Since your blog banner really was the starting point(I kept staring at the furoshiki wrapped gift and wondering how it worked), I'm glad you still retained a furoshiki for the new banner. And I guess you have found a good way of gifting it...and keeping the furoshiki in the family! Best wishes for your "new look" blog.

  6. Dear Nambi,
    What an engaging post. I had a great time reading through and learning, and the photos are representative enough, so give yourself the much deserved pat on the back for something so well written and displayed.


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