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From rags to riches

Tenugui (colorful and traditional Japanese towels) is a staple of Japan summer. Hot and sticky days are managed with a wipe of a rectangular cotton towel; the towels are good for a refreshing after a sweaty train ride but are also frequently used as headbands or bandanas at matsuri festivals. But the uses of the tenugui are limitless constrained only by one’s creativeness.


Tenugui, meaning ‘to wipe with the hand’, are said to have first appeared around 1200 years ago but were only in wider public use in the Edo period. During these 1000-odd years, they were used more for religious rituals than by the public, and their existence was kept relatively quiet.

It was the combined effect of the rise of public bath culture and modern cotton cultivation around 1650 that made them used more widely. Tenugui became the new hip item for Edoites and beyond, to be taken to the baths (folded into a bag to use post-bath), worn on the head, packed in the back pocket of a pair of trousers or used in in the kitchen to dry off a sake choko and dishes. Not only did tenugui prove themselves as practical, but due to their appealing designs they became simple art pieces for home too. 

A notable feature of the tenugui are the unstitched ends. This has multiple benefits: to make it more sanitary as germs have no nooks to settle in, they can dry quickly, and can be pressed into service as a bandage for first-aid as the fabric can be quickly torn. This feature also makes it a handy item for outdoor types heading off to the mountains.

Post-Edo the tenugui began to fall from popularity. As other forms of drying oneself or one’s dishes were developed and an interest in Western art and culture began to be the new fad of the day, the tenugui began to fade from the fashion and daily scenes. However, for the past 20 years or so we’re happy to report the tenugui has been making a come back and is currently enjoying a renaissance.

There are a few theories on the resurgence but one big one is the tenugui’s ability to be easily branded making it a tidy piece of merchandise for sports teams, bands, brands and even shops. Other suggestions on their reappearance include an appetite for reconnection with ancient Japanese culture, global fashion trends, relief from increasingly harsh summers, and more recently as DIY masks.

Tenugui is a fully functioning collectible. It frays softly as they become used, and fade with age to become even more uniquely yours.

Papersky teamed up with traditional tenugui brand Kamawanu to create a series of ’Traveler’s Tenugui’. The designs are based on the characteristics specific to each area. From the green tea fields of Shizuoka to the rolling sea and udon found in Takamatsu.
text & photography | Susie Krieble