Using Japanese cloths called furoshiki to wrap and carry gifts – or return borrowed items – is a thoughtful gesture, says Megumi Inouye, who created this wrap.
Photo: Michael Inouye and Joanna Chan
When we want to wrap a present in a beautiful way, we can seek out special boxes, fine wrapping papers, and choice ribbons from craftspeople – or we can make them ourselves.
But why do we wrap gifts at all? What’s the reason for the box and paper and ribbon? An obvious answer is that it’s the custom. An unwrapped gift feels less valuable. The act of giving a “naked” gift seems a little perfunctory. To go deeper, a carefully wrapped gift says the giver has taken time, paid attention, and is honoring his or her relationship with the receiver. A wrapped gift is a pleasure in its own right, too, a “gift before the gift.” To look at it is to anticipate a revelation.
In short, adding wrapping adds mystique. Maybe that’s why the practice of wrapping has transcended gift-giving and appealed to artists.
In 1995, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag, the massive old parliament building that Berliners walk by every day, transforming it into a huge, strange “gift” that radiated mystery. The pair had worked their way up to the iconic project by wrapping and tying much smaller things, including bottles and cans (1958), a telephone (1962), and a Volkswagen (1963). Judith Scott used yarn, string, textiles, and whatever else was at hand to turn ordinary objects into wildly colorful, tightly wrapped, enigmatic sculptures. Some of the early works of David Nash, best known for working on a large scale with natural wood, are wrapped bundles of sticks that look as if they’re ready for some magical rite. More recently, in 2014, Sarita Westrup wrapped rocks from the Rio Grande River with thread woven to spell out words related to her identity as a woman growing up on the border between Texas and Mexico.
Paying for an item at a sales counter in Japan often ends with the salesperson wrapping that item with care and attention that transcends the cash exchange. And when it comes to wrapping gifts, Japanese people often take great pains, making sure by certain conventions that the wrapping sends the right message to cement the relationship between giver and receiver. Shiho Masuda brought this spirit – and wrapping as a complex yet accessible artform – with her from Japan to New York then Honolulu, where she teaches online courses in gift wrapping.
“Gift-giving,” she says, “is not a material exchange. It’s a way to express our feelings for the other person and nurture the relationship. The act of wrapping with thought and care transforms the act of giving the gift into a memorable experience.” The experience becomes (literally) memorable, she says, because our senses are uniquely linked to our memory. The memory of the sight and touch of beautiful wrapping, combined with the feelings that come with anticipation and mystery, can linger, even after we have forgotten what the gift itself was.
Wrapping choices, for Masuda, are always focused on the receiver and the occasion. “Before you begin,” she says, “you bring to mind the person and the reason for the gift. Is the receiver someone who values peace and gentleness? You’ll select calm, cool colors for the wrapping. Are you celebrating an exciting new opportunity for a friend? You want energy, celebration, bolder colors and shapes.”
“Gift-giving is not a material exchange. It’s a way to express our feelings for the other person and nurture the relationship.”
Masuda goes beyond the simple duality of wrapping paper and ribbon to incorporate other elements of paper craft in her wrapping: decorative pleats, origami, and accent paper (small sections of patterned or colored paper attached to the main wrapping paper to contrast with or complement it). “These things give you more ways to express yourself, the occasion, and the relationship,” she says.
A Wrap for All Seasons
The centerpiece and symbol of the Japanese wrapping culture that Masuda grew up in is the furoshiki, an oblong piece of cloth used to wrap and carry gifts – and many other things as well. Often a beautiful work of craft in its own right, it has a long history. A cloth tsutsumi (“wrapper”) appears in records of the eighth century CE, employed by aristocrats to protect their precious objects. In the 18th century, furoshiki was popularized with the opening of public bathhouses in Japan. Ordinary people used a cloth to wrap up a change of clothes to transport to the public bathhouses. They would also spread the cloth on the ground and stand on it while changing; furoshiki is roughly translated as “bath spread.”
Furoshiki can send different messages. This red arrangement by Shiho Masuda conveys joy and excitement. The wrapping practice originated in Japan as a way for people to carry a change of clothes when they visited public bathhouses.
Photo: Courtesy of Shiho Masuda
“It was a way for people to transport their clothes, and it became artistic because everybody wanted to have their own expression of style,” says Megumi Inouye, who teaches the art of sustainable gift-wrapping and furoshiki-wrapping workshops in northern California. “Each furoshiki design became distinct so people could distinguish whose clothes were whose.” Soon furoshiki, tied to create carrying handles, came to be the go-to wrappers and carriers for everything from presents to lunch boxes to bottles of sake.
Furoshiki embody the East Asian values that Inouye articulates with reference to Japan. “So many of their art forms,” she says, “are rooted in function and practicality. They take those things that are really functional and make them artful and expressive. It’s how they give an artful quality to their lives.”
Today furoshiki come in multiple sizes for multiple uses, and in a wide variety of materials. Silk or silk crepe are best for wrapping a gift for a happy event; cotton is often chosen for everyday carrying, and there are furoshiki made of nylon, rayon, and polyester, too. Colors matter: reds for wrapping happy-occasion gifts, and indigo and deep blue for somber occasions, including bringing food to a bereaved family. Purples and quiet shades of brown and green are appropriate for any occasion, and convey – as they always have in Japan – a refined sense of style in the owner.
And when it comes to furoshiki design, the variety is nearly infinite: bordered, quartered, divided diagonally. Striped; patterned with hexagons; decorated with traditional luck-and-longevity motifs like the tortoise, pine-bamboo-and-plum, and takara-zukushi (multiple good luck charms). Some furoshiki bear favorite motifs from famous artists of the past.
Respecting the seasons is important. “In Japan, they’re very conscious of the seasons,” says Inouye, a second-generation Japanese American. “You wouldn’t use an autumn-leaf motif in the summer, but something lighter and more suggestive of summer.”
Some of the most sophisticated cloths are hand-dyed by a process called tenasen, in which a screen bearing a specific motif is laid on the fabric, and craftsmen paint on the dye for that element – one screen per element.
Inouye’s classes – virtual for now – focus on furoshiki’s versatility in modern American life. She shows differing knot styles both decorative and practical, and how to wrap and tie the cloths for hard-to-wrap gifts such as bottles and circular tins. And she’s found furoshiki to be allies during the quarantine. “I really reconnected to the furoshiki in a big way during this time,” she says, “because it’s been what I use to bring food to people and leave it on their doorsteps, and to bring food to outdoor gatherings – socially distanced picnics. It’s been a nurturing vehicle of connection and care, and a way to express gratitude and friendship when visits with people are not possible.”
Made from scraps or remnants of fabric around the house, these wrapping cloths from Youngmin Lee are examples of patchwork bojagi, or jogakbo, which originated in Korea.
Photo: Youngmin Lee
Wrapping a Wooden Goose
Korea also has an iconic and artful wrapping cloth. The bojagi (or pojagi, an alternate romanized version of the word) is made of silk, cotton, ramie, or hemp fabric. But while the furoshiki, for all its variety of color and design, is a single entity, there are multiple types of bojagi. Each has its own name and use.
Gungbo are the high-class cloths of the old royal court used (like the early Japanese tsutsumi) to wrap valuables. Minbo are the bojagi of ordinary people. Minbo are further subdivided into jogakbo (patchwork) and subo (embroidered).
Executed with spun thread on silk or cotton and often lined or padded, subo often depict good-luck motifs such as trees, flowers, birds, or fruit. Subo are also part of important occasions, particularly weddings, where they’re used in a unique ritual. The groom presents a wooden goose wrapped in a blue and red subo to the bride’s family as a token of his intention to be faithful to her. (Geese mate for life, hence the symbolism – and in premodern Korea, a live goose was the gift.)
It’s the patchwork bojagi, or jogakbo, though, that have become beloved symbols of ordinary Korean life. Pieced together from scraps and remnants found around the house, they’re works of popular art that, in their colorful unpredictability, often resemble abstract paintings, says Youngmin Lee, who teaches bojagi making in the San Francisco Bay Area and creates works of fiber art rooted in the traditional wrapping cloth.
Sewing jogakbo together was traditionally seen as symbolic of adding years up to make a long life, as well as a wish for happiness and prosperity. For Lee, the sewing process is meditation, too. “My process is very organic,” she says. I choose one element from material, shape, or color. I initiate the process by putting small fragments together. Sometimes the piece grows as I planned, but at other times, it grows as if it has its own intention. I just enjoy the rhythm of stitching, with the result beyond my control. I appreciate the beauty that results from the long, slow process of hand-stitching. It’s a meditative act that creates an unexpected and spontaneous result.”
Lee says that she took bojagi for granted when she was growing up “because of its abundant presence in daily life in Korea. I didn’t realize the importance of bojagi until I moved far away from home.” That importance includes multiple uses: as gift wrap; as coverings to keep food warm; and, specially tied, as “backpacks.”
Rock and Wrap
In Santa Fe, Betsy Bauer explores the mystique of wrapping in simple but highly expressive terms influenced by East Asian tradition and naval knots: She wraps rocks, but she doesn’t cover them up. She uses strips of cane to embrace, in various intricate or simple patterns, a single carefully chosen small stone – or perhaps a large one – picked from a dry riverbed or another place from her travels. Sometimes a twig or a bead will be part of the design. The beauty of the rock itself is integral to the effect.
The artist, who is also a painter, an interior designer, and a Zen practitioner, sees these small works as invitations to formal or informal meditation on the connection of nature and the human hand.
One important influence on Bauer was the celebrated 1975 photo book by Hideyuki Oka, How to Wrap Five Eggs, which introduced American readers to the simple beauty and sense of care in traditional Japanese packaging – the many ingenious and beautiful ways that the Japanese have used bamboo, rice straw, hemp twine, paper, and leaves to wrap, protect, and carry food and other everyday items.
But she was inspired to wrap her first rock by four practitioners: Deloss Webber, a Seattle mixed-media artist who works predominantly with stone and fiber; the late Donna Sakamoto Crispin, an Oregon fiber artist and basketmaker; and the California mother-daughter team of Shizu Okino and Karen Okino Butzbach, who, as Shizu Designs, create beautifully simple wrapped rocks with rattan and cane secured with traditional Japanese basketry knots.
Betsy Bauer’s wrapped rocks were inspired by Japanese basketry knots, naval knots, the work of fiber artists, and the landscape of New Mexico.
Photo: Betsy Bauer
“I saw their work,” Bauer says, “and I had one little pamphlet from Donna Sakamoto Crispin explaining a single basket knot. I did that knot over and over on rocks. I also practiced other knots from my older relative’s book on naval knots and began to draw designs inspired by the landscape of New Mexico, where I have lived for 30 years. I just exploded and experimented.”
Bauer’s rocks create moments of enchantment out of everyday materials. Likewise, Japanese and Korean wrapping cloths turn everyday activities like lugging melons, bundling clothes, or giving gifts into more beauty-rich experiences. This fusion of art and life might well be the essence of craft.
How has wrapping made a gift memorable for you?
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