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

Why wrap gifts?

Let’s face it  -- gift wrapping is superfluous.

If I ever wrote the story of my life, the gifts I have given or received would feature in just a few sentences, and the wrapping of those gifts may not even get a mention.

Why, even in Indian religious mythology, historical accounts or literature, although gifts feature either as a piece of fact or as a device to convey deeper spiritual insights, very little is mentioned about the actual embellishment of the gift when it is presented.

In mythology, the story of a poor woman Shabari who took refuge in a forest hermitage never fails to touch a chord in me.  She lived in the hope of getting a glimpse of the exiled king Sri Rama, and performed chores every day like seeing that the forest paths were cleared of stones so they did not hurt the feet of the king, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, if they perchance visited the hermitage. She made sure that the brambles were cleared so that they did not get caught in his hair which no doubt would have grown long.  Berries were plucked, and in order that only the sweetest and best fruit could be given to Sri Rama, Shabari tasted a bit of each berry… which is really unthinkable even in modern India where it is taboo to give food that you have bitten or put to your mouth to others. Eventually, Rama did visit this humble woman’s hermitage and partake of these berries, despite knowing that she had tasted them. He saw it as a gift given from the heart, given with childlike innocence and pure devotion. I can’t think of this gift of berries being given to him in anything other than a simple bowl made of leaves tacked together with bits of dried grass stalks, or maybe a reed basket woven painstakingly by Shabari in the evenings as the light dimmed in the forest.

Gifts were often given by Gods pleased with the penance of sages or the deeds of mortals. For instance, pleased with the penance of Yudishthira, Lord Surya (the Sun God) gave him a wonderful vessel called the Akshyapatra which would give an endless supply of food to the Pandavas every day. In books or comic books that re-tell these stories to modern children, such divine gifts often pop up  from the skies without any embellishments, and often on a torso-less hand, possibly to make it easier for mere mortals to comprehend the message of reaping of what one sows. It would have been difficult to convey the same effect if the said gift appears wrapped in layers of cloth or paper.

Likewise, in an example from Indian history: it is reported that King Ambhi of Taxila gave Alexander, the Macedonian king, gifts of 3000 fat oxen and 10,000 sheep and gold and silver. Somehow, I get the feeling that King Ambhi wouldn’t have bothered too much about wrapping these gifts, nor would the outward appearance have mattered to young Alexander who doubtless was already thinking about his next conquest.  

In the classic stories by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf”, gifts form the central theme -- the former features material gifts that the protagonists gave each other which in a heart wringing twist are ultimately of no use to either; while in the latter story, it was the gift of his time and art and ultimately his own life, that the aging artist gave the invalid girl. The stories were so gripping when I first read them years ago, that I never once wondered about how the gifts might have been wrapped. Closer home, Prem Chand’s story “Idgah” tells us of a poor young boy given a few coins by his old grandmother despite their poverty, so that he could go and enjoy himself with his friends at the fair held during the Id festival. The young boy spends time roaming in the fair grounds clutching the coins and watching his friends purchase small toys and other whimsy. Ultimately, he does buy something -- a pair of tongs for his grandmother so that she does not burn her hands while making rotis on the stove. I have not read the original story in Hindi, but going by the era during which the author wrote it, the gift may not have been wrapped at all, or maybe just loosely covered with a piece of old newspaper and tied with a string.

Gift wrapping with paper and ribbon is not an Indian tradition. It appears to have entered the country along with other western traditions like birthday cakes and birthday parties. Even in the early 1980s, I cannot recall much paper (let alone plastics or aluminium foil and cling film) being used in middle class households in my home town, Bangalore. During festivals, gifts were exchanged among neighbours and friends, but usually these were simple gifts of fruits and delicacies cooked fresh and arranged on a tray and covered with a dainty cloth kept specifically for such purposes. When the tray reached its destination, the contents were transferred onto a tray kept for the purpose by the host, and the original tray and cloth were taken back home. Simple, elegant and fuss free.  

For birthdays, apart from gifts like toys and books (or money as one outgrew toys), what was most important was the early morning bath and prayer, followed by drinking a glass of sweetened milk flavoured with saffron usually served in a special silver tumbler. This was followed by paying respects to the elders of the family and asking for their blessings. In honour of the occasion, a sweet dish would definitely be prepared; the focus again would be on using pure and auspicious ingredients like saffron, ghee, nuts and raisins, as well as grains like rice. A visit to the temple would be mandatory in most households.  In north India, the first reaction to any good news (like the birth of a baby or good exam results) is to quickly make a sweet dish or purchase a box of sweetmeats and offer it to all visitors saying “Mu meetha kijiye” which translates to “Come and sweeten your  mouths”. The focus everywhere was on good food, fun, sharing with others, and respecting the elderly. The gift usually was secondary (at least to adults) to all the excitement and hustle and bustle of the day. 

Even during landmark events like the birth of a baby or a marriage, the gifts were presented formally and openly (in fact even if something like a sari came in a box, it would be displayed openly) at a specific time during the ceremony and were usually arranged on a tray with other customary offerings like fruits, coconuts and betel leaves. 

In present times however, there has been a sea change in attitudes to gifting. Gift coupons, expensive jewellery, books, small knick-knacks, toys...the choice is endless. There are different occasions and new traditions to keep up with global trends, and gifts to suit each occasion. Usually there is a distinct difference in private celebrations at home and larger gatherings.  Travelling long distances to reach events also means that some amount of gift wrapping is necessary to avoid damage to the gift. Large gatherings also mean that it may not be possible to formally present each gift to the recipient in the old manner.

Gift shops usually offer gift wrapping with some basic gift wrap paper free, and this usually leads the busy shopper to go in for it. In fact, I started thinking of novel gift wraps and customizing them for the recipient for this reason. Whenever I took my son to a birthday party, especially in the same housing society we live in, I found that many gifts looked alike -- not just were they bought in the same bookshop across the road, even the gift wrap used was the same because there were very few designs! I felt that the children deserved better and even though they usually rip through the wrapping in a few seconds to get at the gift, sparing a few minutes to wrap things better made ME feel better.

It requires  some effort to look the shop owner in the eye and say “Thanks, but I’d rather not use the free shiny non-biodegradable wrapping paper you use to wrap gifts in two minutes, but I’m going to go all the way home to wrap the gift myself thereby taking an extra hour or so ….” . Yet, it’s all so worth it when I see the extra excitement when the gift is handed over, so I fully intend to go to all the bother.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bookaroo 2010

Some scenes from Bookaroo, the annual literary festival for children, that takes place in Delhi.

Brilliant blue sky, cheerful decorations and elegant locale at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA). A photo taken while horizontal under this canopy by Anant.

An early Christmas? Here the organisers have created a tree where children can tie tags with the names of their favourite book. Photo by Anant.

The designer casts an anxious last-minute look  at the pop-up card created during paper engineer's Robert Sabuda's highly popular workshop. Don't miss the fangs, a creative touch given by Anant. Photo by Namitha