Wrapped in History: Tenugui’s Transformation from Ritual to Everyday Life

  • 3 min read
Wrapped in History: Tenugui’s Transformation from Ritual to Everyday Life

At first sight, tenugui might seem like a strange scrap of cloth leftover from the construction of a kimono, blanket, or other kind of large fabric. To the unfamiliar, tenugui might even look and feel like a rag given their frayed edges and rough texture. But they would be mistaken! Tenugui are multi-use, multi-functional pieces of cloth with an interesting history. The kanji for tenugui can be broken down into two parts: te (手) meaning hand, and nugui (拭い) meaning to wipe.

The first tenugui date back to the Heian era, 794-1192 CE, a time of “cultural enlightenment” and artistic expression in Japanese history. At the time, these pieces of cloth were woven from silk or hemp and reserved for use in ceremonies and rituals. They were very expensive – far out of reach for the common classes – but that slowly changed as textile production became more widespread and accessible through the Kamakura and into the Edo period. These once high-class cloths became necessities for people all throughout Edo Japan, filling roles as headwraps, belts, wallets, and reusable wrappings. Their popularity was also fueled by the practice of regular bathing at onsen and sento (bathhouses), where tenugui were a must.

Wrapped in History: Tenugui’s Transformation from Ritual to Everyday Life

The mass production of fabric eventually meant that tenugui were used for what their name implies, cleaning and wiping things, namely in homes, businesses, and other establishments. They are strong, washable, and reusable, making them perfect for the job. They also were adopted as the perfect headwear for practitioners of kendo as well as performers in summer festivals, able to soak up all their sweat.

Everything wasn’t all great for the image of the humble tenugui, however, as their use as headwear also bore the creation of the iconic image of a thief in Japan, a man with a tenugui wrapped over his head and tied around his nose to mask his identity.

Wrapped in History: Tenugui’s Transformation from Ritual to Everyday Life

As tenugui became more popular, they also became more stylish and useful in a different way: branding. While the prints on tenugui were always a way to express style, they also became a way to promote different businesses, kabuki actors, and even sumo athletes. Families would also have their kamon, or crests, printed on them to use as a substitute for business cards.

Unlike some Japanese traditions that have somewhat dwindled with time despite their preservation, tengui are thriving to this day. Online shops offer options for custom designs, and there are even courses and in-person classes on how to make and dye your own. Not only are they functional and beautiful, but they make great gifts or unique gift-wrapping! They truly are a timeless treasure, however rough they might seem.


About the author:

Kevin KilcoyneKevin Kilcoyne

The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!

Leave a comment (all fields required)

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Search our shop